We were somewhere among the back half of the crowd watching Macklemore when the girl in front of us, who had been screaming something and proudly holding her beer aloft while standing up on the wobbly, thin fabric center of one of those fold-up canvas deck chairs, went down like a brick.
The chair had buckled below her. A guy nearby, wearing a white tee that bore an American flag and the text “Back to back world war champs,” tapped his friend, pointed at the girl on her face in the grass, and said, “Sweet!”
Two days earlier I had been sitting in my office, clean and sober, dignity intact, when a buddy of mine emailed me to say we should go to the Preakness on Saturday. I told him it was pretty late notice to decide, on Thursday, to head to Baltimore on Friday night, and that I had basically promised someone I’d go to a graduation party in New Jersey on Saturday.
“That sounds pretty lame,” he wrote back. “I should remind you, there will be over 125k drunk people in the infield. That’s at least 50k booties in jean shorts. Beers are 2 bucks.”
I’m a huge sports fan, with an allegiance to Boston teams, and I’ve been to countless MLB, NFL and NBA games. I’ve been to one or two NHL games, even an MLS game. But I’ve never been to a single horse racing event of any kind. I’d venture that most modern sports fans haven’t. I knew very little about the Preakness: just what it is (horses) and what it’s a part of (the Triple Crown) and that it’s in Baltimore, a city I had never been to until September 2011, when I went for a Fortune story on Under Armour and its CEO Kevin Plank. At that time, I had also visited Sagamore Farm, the giant 530-acre piece of land (it looks like something out of "Downton Abbey") that Plank bought in 2007. Plank is trying to bring horse racing back to its old prominence, and in 2010 one of his horses won the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs. Visiting Under Armour’s corporate headquarters on the harbor, and Plank’s farm, was the extent of my Baltimore experience thus far in life. I decided to go.
The trouble started when my friend M., a second friend of ours, S., and I tried to get a bus out of Manhattan on Friday night. M. had sworn that we could just show up and buy a ticket before getting on board, but he showed up a critical six minutes late for the 7:30 Xinnix Bus we tried to take from midtown; it pulled away. We got in line across the street for an 8:30 Eastern Bus behind a dozen other people — the idea that they were all in line an hour ahead of time for a bus somehow made me livid — and one of us grabbed slices and beers poured into generic soda cups to snack on. We did get to slip onto the bus (a steep $23 apiece), but only barely; despite M.’s lazy claims that no one buys tickets for the Baltimore buses ahead of time, most in line had. Once they all got on, only four seats were left, one a window seat next to a guy holding a crying baby — tough news for the unlucky man that got on behind us.
“This is the kind of weekend it’s going to be,” S. predicted. While scrolling through Twitter on my phone, I found a BuzzFeed story: “A Tribute to the Preakness, Once the Drunkest Place in Sports.” The "story" had photos of drunk kids falling down, drunk kids sprinting across the roofs of the Port-a-Potties, and drunk kids fighting. It ends: “Thanks for the memories, Preakness Infield. You are gone, but not forgotten.” I asked M. about it.
“Yeah, they banned outside beers like five years ago. Old news. It’s more tame now, I guess.”
We slept at M.’s parents’ house in Columbia, Maryland, about 25 minutes outside of Baltimore. In the morning, we debated what to wear — shorts, jeans? And up top, a polo, button-down, or t-shirt and hoodie? “It doesn’t really matter,” said M. “No matter what, you’re going to look more normal than a lot of other people. There are so many kids that wear suits and look like jackasses. You’ll see.”
I opted for shorts (Nantucket red, to at least have a touch of assholery) and a polo, with boat shoes. S. wore the same, but M. wore shorts and a Ravens t-shirt with flip-flops. (“I’ve made a huge mistake,” he would later say.) We drove to Poly-Western, a school outside Baltimore, parked and got on a city bus. It was on the bus that the tone of the day would at last come into full relief for me.
As we waited to pull out from Poly, a fancy-looking grandma and her snooty granddaughter, who looked 25 or so, stepped on board and sat down, only after the granddaughter inspected the seat for dirt. The girl was wearing a tight flower-patterned dress and velvety high heels. Both had on absurd floppy hats.
They smiled at us primly and M. said, “Sweet hats!” They did not laugh or respond. The driver got on and announced to the eight of us on the quiet bus, “OK, we gonna take you to see some horses run around. Hey, which horse is gonna win today?” An elderly black man at the back, alone and wearing a fedora, called back, “The winner will be the first one to cross the finish line!” Yuk yuk. I muttered, “The winner will be those of us still alive at the end of today.”
After 10 minutes, the bus pulled over on the side of the highway and the driver announced a train was coming in, and we were going to take the people on. The fun began. Crowds poured onto the bus, almost everyone young and drunk, with every style of dress represented: Guys in flannel shirts and skinny jeans, bros in muscle shirts and cargo shorts, natty men in suits with girlfriends in head-to-toe J. Crew. I gave my seat up to an elderly couple and ended up standing next to a guy in a bowtie and tweed blazer. I pointed to a sweaty-looking guy in a LeBron James Heat jersey and gold chain and, trying to make conversation, said to the bowtied kid, “Really, a LeBron jersey, to this?”
“Oh, you’ll see all varieties of white trash today,” he said, rather loudly. He was a lobbyist in D.C. who had gone to Towson. His girlfriend, in a polka-dot dress, was a lobbyist in D.C. who had gone to Towson. “Sitting in the infield?” he asked. “You won’t see a single race. Actually you probably won’t see a single horse. But it’s fun to just get drunk and loud. We come every year because it’s sweet to dress up like an asshole and lose some money!”
We got off at Pimlico near the Clubhouse entrance, where there was also a valet. The first person I saw was Kevin Plank, shaking hands and greeting people. His little boy was in a suit and looked adorable. I said hi from a short distance and he called out, “Nice to see you” (whether he actually recognized me from our one in-person interview two years earlier, I have no idea) and went inside. A group of eight fratty bros, most of them in Orioles hats, stood by the gate crushing cans of beers. One noticed Plank and yelled excitedly, “Under Armour!”
We had to walk all the way around to the main gate to meet up with the kid selling us tickets. Once we got inside, we walked down through a tunnel, and when we emerged from it, the first impression I got was of a monster truck rally. Big, open spaces; people everywhere; tents and food stands. It looked more like Lollapalooza than a leg of the Triple Crown. It was noon, it was hot out, we were each of us sober, and some kid was already pissing behind a truck in plain view.
Unpreparedness would become a theme of the day for the three of us — we had brought no cash, no jackets and insufficiently charged cell phones. The cash issue was priority number one; we wanted beer, but first we needed cash. We found the ATM area, a long, open outhouse-type shelter with maybe 80 people in line for two lone ATMs. We stood in that line for almost 40 minutes. A huge guy that looked a lot like Manti T’eo cut in front of us in the line; when S. said something, the guy bellowed, “Is there a FUCKING problem?” A couple minutes later, when a group of girls dressed like the trio in "Spring Breakers" showed up and milled around near the front, Manti yelled, “Yo, do NOT let those bitches cut the line!”
Standing alone near the line was a girl in a pristine white dress and camo baseball cap. She looked the most normal of any female we had seen; there were girls basically dressed in rags, girls in shorts that only covered half of their asses, etc., but she looked cute and classy. The only weird thing: All around her collarbone and neck were charcoal smudges — they almost looked like fingerprints. I turned around and tapped S. to point it out, but by the time we both turned back, the same girl was suddenly making out with a guy in a giant straw cowboy hat. OK.
We got cash and walked to the nearest liquor hut only to find that credit cards would have been accepted after all. Beers were $4 — pretty good, coming from New York. We got three Stellas and headed to see Macklemore. The crowd was an ocean of flat-brimmed baseball caps, on top of which floated girl after girl, propped on the shoulders of dudes. The girl that fell from the chair immediately got back onto it. Lessons are not easily learned at the Preakness, it seemed. Cigar smoke was nauseatingly heavy, heavier than weed smoke even (vaguely surprising; personally the very last thing I’d want on a hot day in a large, loud crowd is to be smoking a thick cigar). A man in overalls attempted to roll a joint on the same plate his hot dog sat on. Macklemore finished “Thrift Shop” and took the mic to make this ill-advised speech: “We want to make this festival …” he yelled, “… is this a festival? Can I call it a festival? I dunno, I mean, there’s horses and shit! But yo, yo, we wanna make the Preakness festival the very loudest fuckin …” I’ll stop there. I think the Preakness maybe wasn’t really the ideal venue for this guy. The next act was Pitbull; we skipped it.
We went back to the beer hut and got three shots of tequila. The tall bartender, who I’d put at 6’5’’ (her height, and the blonde curly Afro, made me think of Scary Spice), was basically falling out of her top; all the beer hut girls looked like Hooters waitresses. She raised the first shot toward my face before I could process what was happening. “Come ON!” she yelled, annoyed. Oh. I opened my mouth and she threw it in. When she did the same for M., she spilled most of it on the front of his t-shirt. His aggravated glance led her to fill up two more shots, free. We drank them.
Things were getting sloppy, to be sure. Photos of us from the rest of the day show beer spills down the front of our light-colored shirts; we looked like toddlers who had spit up all their Gerber. Horses seen thus far: zero. Pairs of people making out: approaching double-digits. Girls in bras with literally no top over the bra: four. People throwing up: two. Pairs of people making out — dare I even mention this? — while leaning against one of the Port-a-Potties: one.
Oh, the Port-a-Potties. Those were their own special horror. The day had begun at 10 a.m.; we had arrived at noon; by 3 p.m., one corner of the particular "bathroom" I entered was submerged in liquid (the floors of those things are rarely level) and the toilet was full to the brim, with a Macklemore t-shirt floating at the surface. I peed in a corner so as not to raise the water level and got the hell out of there, dragging my shoes along the grass to dry them off as I walked away.
We moseyed on over to the betting area. M. picked up a newspaper and he and S. tried to figure the odds. I had no intention of losing my money; all I knew was that a horse named Orb was so heavy a favorite that at one point his odds were 1-1. They talked about trifectas and I noticed a horse was named Oxbow. A girl I knew in high school had lived on Oxbow Road. (If only, if only I had bet on him.) In the betting area, we met a cute redhead junior from Towson. The guy with her, wearing a ribbed, lime green beater and gold cross, kept groping her breasts from behind, making them jiggle, and grinning at us. She kept conversing with us as if whatever his hands were doing was just a pleasant breeze. When he walked away for a beer, she told us, “That’s my gay friend, Marco. He wants to be an actor.”
It started to rain. It didn’t pour; it was closer to mist. But it picked up and became a sharp, driving rain, blowing sideways so that huddling under tents didn’t do much. It got very chilly. People camped out in the open compartments of a Pepsi truck. Others simply sat on the grass and held their picnic blankets up over their heads. Pairs of people entered Port-a-Potties and stayed in there, lighting joints, fish-bowling them.
The rain stopped after about an hour and a half, though many people had left during it. We drank more. We snacked. I ran into a girl I hadn’t seen since high school in Massachusetts eight years earlier. We took photos for a group of nine girls whose Soffee shorts spelled out their sorority catchphrase if they stood side-by-side with their asses lined up. We met up with a guy I had previously only known through Twitter. And through a fence we caught a blurred glimpse of the final race, which Oxbow won. When it ended, the entire crowd began moving for the exit.
As one giant amoeba-like body, we all walked out of the main gate and toward the buses. People yelled a lot of things for the sake of yelling them; they finished the last gulps of beer cans and left them on the sidewalk. The masses staggered away from Pimlico and turned onto West Rogers Ave. People kept breaking off from the sidewalk to buy Powerball tickets; the jackpot was above $500 million, and hey, why couldn’t the winner be some lucky fan that had just left the Preakness? Ladies on their porches manned their grills and called out the price for their fried chicken and hot dogs. At the corner of West Rogers Ave and Highgate Drive, we stopped at one such homemade operation. We were ravenous. I got four big wings for $3.75 and it was the best fried chicken I had ever eaten. The barbecue sauce she pushed me toward got all up in my maw and I tried to wipe it off with cheap napkins that tore into bits from my facial hair.
The three of us sat on that woman’s porch, watching waves of people pass by as we forked up the last bites of rice from our paper plates. When she asked me if I also wanted a cold beer, I said, “For the love of god, no.”