The Middle Stakes

by Pete Tosiello


Emotionally investing in animals who are worth seven figures and may one day become dog food requires a certain degree of reconciliation. In in light of record crowds and revenues at this spring’s Triple Crown series, it’s a resolution that seems all the less remarkable, the thrill of gleaming equine muscle driven by the canes of emaciated cavalrymen round the final turn undiminished by a growing concern for animal or human rights. The glory of the Triple Crown, an annual trilogy of million-dollar stakes races for three-year-old thoroughbreds, somehow endures, even though to spend an afternoon watching horses race at one of the East Coast’s thoroughbred tracks is to enter a time warp with a cast of itinerant handlers, stable boys, cavalries of worn-out escort horses, and scowling monoliths stationed behind betting windows clinging to obsolete, seasonal jobs against the sweep of technology in a declining industry.

On Saturday, American Pharoah dominated the Belmont Stakes, becoming only the twelfth horse in a century to win all three Triple Crown races and ending a thirty-seven year drought between sweeps. Before a sedate, capped audience including Empire State dignitaries Bill Clinton and Joe Torre, Pharoah’s team once again elevated thoroughbred racing to the forefront of American sport with the overwhelming victory. In order to reach this hallowed plateau, Pharoah first needed to win the Kentucky Derby in early May, as well as the Preakness Stakes, the Crown’s middle jewel, which continues to evolve as a middlebrow, mid-Atlantic spectacle navigating an uncertain market.

While the three races construct a single overarching narrative involving many shared characters, each boasts its own unique atmosphere, history, and attitude. Louisville’s Churchill Downs is home to a debauched fashion show replete with muddy infield, non-enforcement of open container laws, and a last call coinciding with sunrise; Long Island’s staid Belmont Stakes hosts a smoky bridge-and-tunnel crowd barred from entering the track’s infield area; and Baltimore’s Preakness occupies an infertile middle ground between the two, with the shortest track, the smallest capacity, and the least exciting race action.

Spanning one and three-sixteenths miles on the dirt track at Pimlico Race Course, the Preakness now offers a one-and-a-half-million-dollar purse. Whereas the Derby can feature as many as twenty horses, Preakness fields are typically smaller and, lately, less competitive. After a disappointing run at Churchill, hopeful owners may opt out of the Preakness and set their sights on Belmont, allowing the horses five weeks’ rest, rather than starting all three grueling races. It’s not unheard of for an unheralded non-Derby horse to steal the Preakness, while the mile-and-a-half marathon of the Belmont is another story entirely. The concise schedule of the three races takes a toll on the young, unproven, and valuable horses, so unless a shot at immortality is on the line, modern owners often look to protect their investments by skipping one of the three.

Coinciding with the end of the undergraduate calendar and falling two weekends prior to Memorial Day, the Preakness has an enduring hard-partying image engendered by a young crowd long drawn to the anarchy of Pimlico’s open infield area. Compared to the southern pageantry of the Derby and the Belmont’s faceless ceremony, the Preakness’s identity crisis is still palpable — although measures have been taken to discourage its perception as the Derby’s boozy little brother, it takes a populist’s pride in being the Triple Crown’s Billy Carter.

Opened in 1870, Pimlico Race Course is nestled within Baltimore’s northwestern city limits in its eponymous neighborhood. The route, via car or bus from downtown, passes the Maryland Zoo and the Cylburn Arboretum, skirting just east of the Gilmore Homes, the housing project where Freddie Gray lived and was arrested during the final week of his twenty-five years; a brief detour west would takes a traveler past the police station that was the site of the earliest protests, which led to Governor Larry Hogan’s declaration of a state of emergency, as well as New Shiloh Baptist Church, where Gray’s funeral was held on April 27th. As recently as two weeks prior to the event, it wasn’t a given that the Preakness would go off at all, since on April 29th, with the Maryland National Guard still stationed within the city, the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played an afternoon game in an empty Camden Yards closed to the public.

Additionally, dire financials have threatened Pimlico’s spring schedule for years, and race dates were cut from thirty-one to twenty in 2009. Declining revenues are hardly unique to Pimlico, but as tracks across the East Coast consider truncated schedules, the near-record crowds that flock the Triple Crown races present a stark juxtaposition. Amidst an economic recession, the Triple Crown races have become destination weekends, but outside of those dates and venues, thoroughbred racing faces competition from other spectator sports, evolving gambling laws, and dwindling disposable income for playing the ponies.

Vacant and boarded-up homes mark the main thoroughfare to the park, West Belvedere, where the bus stop benches are inscribed, “Baltimore: The Greatest City in the World.” On the approach to the race course, the sidewalks were choked with pastels and sun dresses circumventing the locals attempting to coax vehicles into their makeshift lots — on Preakness weekend, Pimlico businesses, churches, and residences alike open their lots and yards for parking. After leaving the car at a trusty community center, my friends and I joined the throng bound for the gates. There was a police presence, but it was less immediately perceptible than in years past. Along the clubhouse lot’s chain link fence, a man behind a card table sold t-shirts: an orange shirt reading “Black Lives Matter,” a white shirt reading “All Lives Matter,” and another orange shirt reading “I Survived the Baltimore Riots of 2015 Curfew and All.”

In addition to the Preakness Stakes itself, slated for a 6:18 PM post time, Pimlico had thirteen other races of variously lower significance slated for May 16th, the first going off at 10:30 AM. Attendees were confronted with a few options upon reaching the turnstiles, above which a banner boasted, “The People’s Race…The People’s Party.” Tiered grandstand seats, offering an elevated, covered view of the proceedings, were for sale, as well as the twenty-five-dollar General Admission ticket, which allows entrance only into the bowels of the track, where the betting windows and TV screens are located. Park staff are supposed to keep General Admits without grandstand tickets inside, but generally by midday they’re overwhelmed and GAs spill outside into the stands, milling en masse along the rail.

The newest option was InfieldFest. Starting at seventy dollars, the tickets guaranteed entry into the mass of tents, stages, and corporate sponsors in the track’s infield area. With at least a half hour separating each of the day’s races, InfieldFest offers diversion as a music festival — this year the headliners were Dutch DJ Armin Van Buuren and the navel-gazing actor-cum-rapper Childish Gambino. InfieldFest is the latest evolutionary stage of what has for decades been a beloved and fraught Preakness tradition: For most of the Preakness’s history, attendees could bring their own alcohol to the infield, making it a mecca for college students and young adults. The so-called Running of the Urinals became a viral phenomenon after camera phones captured carousers racing across the roofs of lined port-a-potties while onlookers hurled full cans of beer in their directions. Concerned with the race’s worsening image and safety, the Maryland Jockey Club passed down a ban on BYOB in 2009, which was followed by a historic drop in attendance and revenue. The next year, the event was officially rebranded InfieldFest, complete with a new mascot, the bearded, beer-gutted centaur Kegasus. Although Kegasus was eventually scrapped, his spirit lives on through the hours of musical entertainment and t-shirts emblazoned with “Get Ur Preak On.”

Knowing full well we’d encounter little trouble getting out to the grandstand with GA tickets, we entered the ground-level passageway at 2 PM and loaded up on racing forms and six-dollar Bud Lights just in time for the eighth race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth run with a small purse on the turf. Squinting through the dank interior’s fluorescent lighting, the big board indicated one of the fourteen mounts had withdrawn; I put down a modest win-place-show on the number twelve horse, a four-year-old grandson of 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew with good times and experience at the distance. Stepping back from the row of manned betting windows, where lines a dozen deep waited to wager on the mid-afternoon races, we joined a small assembly watching grainy TV screens affixed to the shallow ceiling. My horse ran tenth. “Whoo! Thirteen, baby!” a delirious, shirtless gentleman yowled, launching his aluminum beer bottle at the wall. I picked another doomed horse for the ninth race and we skirted around Pimlico staff to the grandstand.

Baltimore is now two-thirds black, but horse racing’s domain of old money and vanity investment maintains a color-coded hierarchy. Dandyish white owners with young wives and blond children hand-pick haggard white trainers, who in turn select mostly Hispanic jockeys to whip their animals into high-speed frenzies. Out by the grandstand, the heavily vanilla crowd was dressed for fun if not to impress, the older men sporting jackets and occasional hats and ties and even the older women clad in vibrant sundresses. Standing by the rail in the brilliant sun, our fellows were mostly in their thirties and forties, with a slight male skew. While their younger counterparts made merry under the massive Finlandia and Grey Goose tents across the track in the infield, they clutched Black Eyed Susans, the Official Cocktail of the Belmont Stakes, a forgettable citrus and vodka concoction, and lazed about the half-filled seats.

After striking exactas and emerging from early deficits on the tenth race, a six-furlong sprint on the track, we headed back inside to collect our winnings and initiate preparations for the big thirteenth race. The scuttlebutt was that, approaching 4:30 PM, there was a single men’s and a single women’s restroom in operation for the entire grandstand. The announced crowd was a record high of nearly a hundred and thirty-two thousand people, and Pimlico has historically struggled to contain its annual big draw; in 2013, food supplies were exhausted some three hours before the big race. “Did they think nobody was going to show up today?” my friend Joey cursed the smoked sausage gods. We walked back in the direction of the main entrance to access the underground paddock, where a few dozen spectators crammed to visually assess the fillies running in the eleventh race. Seeing the sweating, shitting horses up close was exhilarating, even as the final operational men’s restroom leaked through the ceiling. The horses towered over their handlers, trudging laps with their heads down until the jockeys mounted up.

Third-generation jockey Joe Bravo made his second appearance of the day, perching atop a four-year-old Maryland mare circling the paddock. Like any good tri-state natives with surnames ending in vowels, we love Jersey Joe. One Fourth of July, the birthday I share with my grandfather, we stood in the winner’s circle with him at Monmouth. “Nice shirt, pops!” he squeaked at my grandfather, grinning at his stars-and-stripes polo. Years later, we met a woozy man in his forties at a Louisville block party after the Kentucky Oaks. Upon disclosing that he was from Bravo’s hometown of Long Branch, Joey asked if he knew the jockey. “Jersey Joe?” the man replied, his bloodshot eyes momentarily lighting up. “That fuckin’ douchebag.”

We retreated back into the sun just in time to see Bravo run seventh. As the twelfth race, a reputable Preakness opening act called the Dixie Stakes, dawned, the grandstand and infield were packed and the sky suddenly turned slate. With a three-hundred-thousand-dollar purse, the Dixie offered the second-largest winnings of the day’s bill of races and went off smoothly, the crowd maintaining good spirits as the horses traversed their nine furlongs under the roiling clouds.

As the tractors returned to rake the track, lightning tore across the horizon. Undeterred, legendary trainer Bob Baffert, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, led a cadre of men in suits strutting in single file down the rail to the grandstand’s raucous approval. Baffert’s horses won five Preaknesses between 1997 and 2010, and his horse American Pharoah became the heavy favorite in 2015 after a virtuoso performance in the Kentucky Derby. With forty minutes separating the twelfth and thirteenth races, however, there appeared ample time and clouds to rain on Baffert’s parade. The first raindrops descended just after six, with twenty minutes to the hundred and fortieth Running of the Preakness Stakes. Ten minutes later, the sky opened and thousands of spectators fled the open ground separating the track from the covered grandstand seats, squeezing under the capacious grandstand’s roof and eyeing the soaked celebrants on the infield. Beneath the overhang, gamblers bemoaned their rotten luck; of course, they’d have bet differently if they’d known the track would be a swamp. Next to me, a dapper white-haired man in a cream suit and bowler cowered from the gutter cascading to his left. “Don’t worry,” I assured him, “You still look great!” He glared back. “That’s the last thing I’m worried about,” he said.

The tune of “Maryland, My Maryland” wafted from the infield, but no one seemed to know the words or cared to admit they did. The eight horses nominated for the big race were corralled into the starting gate which, even from the grandstand’s north end, was hardly visible in the downpour. Facing conditions worlds removed from their workout terrain, the horses propelled their jockeys into the flying mud as the starting gates rang open. As the horses disappeared around the first bend, we relied on the obscured video screens set up to face the grandstand from the infield to make out the pack. The horses were briefly visible on the back stretch between the giant vodka tents, but disappeared again until the final turn. Out of the pack, American Pharoah emerged with speed for days, finding another gear for the stretch and winning by a dominant seven lengths in the muck in 1:58.46.

The crowd was exultant at the prospect of the first Triple Crown winner since the Carter presidency, and our party was further jubilant; in addition to Pharoah I had bet the runner-up Tale of Verve to place and Joey correctly predicted Castellano’s Divining Rod to show. Rather than cram back indoors to claim our winnings, we took seats to watch the comparatively meaningless final race, a last ditch by Pimlico to win back some of the big race’s payout in spite of the day’s record eighty-five-million handle. The rain had completely ceased, lasting long enough to make an utter mess of the race which had lured a crowd equal to one-fifth Baltimore’s population. Only a hundred-and-fifty-second trip around a track in Elmont, New York separated American Pharoah from equine ascendancy.

Leaving the Preakness, the line for the city bus from West Belvedere to downtown Baltimore stretched around the block. A bleary young white man approached a bleary middle-aged white man standing alone in line.

“Is this for the bus back to civilization?” he asked.

Worried about Nassau County transit and the Long Island Rail Road’s ability to handle a potentially overwhelming Belmont crowd, the New York Racing Association capped attendance, so we reserved advance tickets to ensure entry at the park on June 6. On a temperate, overcast spring afternoon, we took in a full day’s worth of ten races before American Pharoah dug into the starting gate just after 6:50 PM flanked by seven competitors, each of whom he had already defeated in earlier competition. In the twenty springs prior, nine horses had won both the Derby and the Preakness only to have their Triple Brown bids dashed down Belmont Park’s long stretch, and three of them were trained by Baffert.

Helmed by jockey Victor Espinoza, Pharoah set the early pace, jumping out to a quick lead to the consternation of a crowd whose wagers made him the heavy three-to-five favorite; sustaining such a pace over a full mile-and-a-half would be a tall order even for a horse of Pharoah’s proven ability. As we waited with baited breath for another horse to take the inside rail or dart to the front of the pack, Pharoah held on into the final turn. With only the straightaway remaining, ninety thousand spectators were treated to the uncanny if by now familiar scene of American Pharoah pulling away on the stretch, opening his lead over the final quarter mile and turning the Belmont Stakes into another contest for second place. With a masterful gate-to-wire victory, Espinoza became the first Latino jockey to win the Triple Crown, and Pharoah secured the first sweep since 1978.

Photo by Tom Nappi