Jennifer Kelly of The Sir Barton Project recently attended the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course when Cloud Computing surprised the field and won the 142nd running of the race. Below is Jennifer's first-hand account of her two days at Pimlico. You can read more of Jennifer's writing and her research on the great Sir Barton at www.thesirbartonproject.com.
A Good Old Time on Old Hilltop
Ten years ago, my husband surprised me for one milestone birthday with another tick off my bucket list: Kentucky Derby tickets. This year, as I faced another milestone birthday while also working on First, I had only one request for a gift: Preakness tickets. I wanted to visit Old Hilltop and see where all twelve Triple Crown winners, including my own Sir Barton, took another step on the path toward immortality. Six weeks before the blessed event, the tickets arrived and we were on our way!
Always Dreaming of a Derby-Preakness Double
I watched this year’s Kentucky Derby with keener interest than usual because I knew I would be seeing that horse at Pimlico two weeks later. Like 2015, I wanted a horse to root for, one that I thought could win it all. I listened to the prognosticators, watched workouts, and read the guides to the twenty-horse field. I had family and friends ask me who I was rooting for as Derby Day dawned with me on a tennis court.
Despite my best efforts, the only people right about the Derby were my neighbor and my five-year-old son. So much for thirty-plus years of watching, researching, and reading about racing! Now, though, I had a name to root for: Always Dreaming. I realized that was what I had been doing all these years: always dreaming of going to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. I had ticked one off my list already. Time to follow Always Dreaming and his challengers to Baltimore to see what was next.
As my kids counted down the days to the end of their school year, I counted down to landing in Baltimore for my first live racing in more than a year. I packed my suitcase, I drooled over the list of stakes races on the Friday-Saturday card, and I read about the nine other horses there to face Always Dreaming. After our late flight into the city, my husband and I managed to catch a few hours of sleep before rising for Friday’s Sunrise Tour of the backside of Pimlico.
Pimlico is situated in the midst of neighborhoods off Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore. It reminded me of similar areas in Chicago, Atlanta, Birmingham, and more: older neighborhoods that are a mixture of businesses and the tight quarters of urban life. Much like Churchill Downs, the city grew up around Pimlico. We parked our car and, while I could see the tall tents in the infield and the end of the grandstand on the track’s first turn, I couldn’t really see the iconic sights of Pimlico until we started walking toward the entrance to the track itself.
Then, as I rounded the corner onto the sidewalk in front of the parking lot, I saw it: Pimlico, Home of the Preakness. For a moment, it felt like coming home. Back to the dirt oval, the pounding sounds of horses flying down the stretch, and the inevitable speculation on who was going to flash under the wire first. Sir Barton ran here. Man O’War. Seabiscuit. Secretariat. American Pharoah. I could feel the history in the air.
The Sunrise Tour took us through a couple of spots inside the track, but I was there to see the horses and that we did. Our tour group walked past the barn of a couple of Preakness contenders (Conquest Mo Money, Senior Investment), watched a Clydesdale get vacuumed off after grooming (not joking), and met the adorable Watch Me Whip, who was gentle enough for the kids in our group to touch his muzzle. The backside was fascinating, but, of course, we were far away from the stakes barn where Always Dreaming was stabled. As a lifelong racing fan, though, I was in hog heaven being near the horses, ready to pet and talk to whichever face I got to see.
Two Days of Racing? Sign Me Up!
After the Sunrise Tour, my husband and I took a walk around the track to get a feel for the area. I was surprised to discover that Old Hilltop is a literal nickname! The track itself is on top of the hill; the first floor of Pimlico starts at track level and then slopes downward. The betting windows were at the bottom of the ‘hill’ as were the majority of the halls, stairwells, and other features of the track’s first-floor interior. Our seats had us in the apron; we were still in an uncovered spot, as we had been at Churchill Downs, but we were mere feet from the finish line. I snuck down to the rail to stand and watch the post parades and the race finishes as many times as security and crowd would allow. Watching the finish of a race on television can be thrilling, but seeing it in person in front of you would convert even the most hard-hearted person to a race fan in an instant.
Friday was Black-Eyed Susan Day and Saturday was, of course, Preakness Day. Both races cards were longer than average – at least fourteen races – and both featured a number of stakes races, most later in the day. Each card started with a handful of claiming and maiden races and, as the day wore on, the evolution of the talent in each race was clear. All thoroughbreds look impressive in person, but, as the caliber of horse increased, the stunning beauty of their musculature and their coats became more and more impressive. I watched the horses in the paddock and in the post parades, trying each time to gauge their readiness. As someone who doesn’t see live racing very often, the back and forth from the paddock to the post and then their flight by me each time fed my soul. The fact that I was doing it in Sir Barton’s backyard made the whole day feel like I had found another home, another place where I belonged.
A Change in Weather
Just before Actress surprised everyone in the Black-Eyed Susan on Friday, the skies opened up. We had been tracking the weather all day and presumed that the rain would miss us this year, unlike 2015 when the skies poured on Pimlico just before American Pharoah dominated the Preakness. However, as the horses gathered in the paddock just before the Black-Eyed Susan, I felt the drip-drip of a sprinkle that soon developed into a deluge that sent us all scurrying for cover. The water stood puddling on the dirt oval and I wondered how the fillies would handle this sudden change in the track condition. It was too late to scratch and too early to know how each horse would handle the newly sloppy going. Actress snuck by everyone in the middle of the track, covered in the watery slop but game enough to hold out for the win. With standing water on the track, we left wondering how dry everything would be the next day, especially after hearing the rain fall more overnight.
Preakness Day dawned cool and cloudy, a nice change from the stifling humidity and heat of the day before. Much like our Kentucky Derby experience, the day started off slow. We got to Pimlico early, wanting to beat the expected crowds and find a good parking spot for our long day at the track. People trickled in as the day wore on; our section stayed pretty sparse until about halfway through the day’s card, many arriving in time for the bigger stakes races. The infield dominated the scene, with its tents and stages keeping the backside of the track well out of our sight; occasionally the pulsing bass would come at us through the cool air and I wondered what kind of day those in attendance were having. While I spent my day going to and from the paddock, an indoor enclosure that looks far bigger on television than it actually is, these people were enjoying concerts and deejays, the actual racing farther away from them. My Preakness and theirs were shaping up to be two completely different experiences.
As I stood at the paddock rail off and on throughout the day, I watched each race as big names came and went: Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Mike Smith, Johnny Velazquez, and more. D. Wayne Lukas walked by me at one point. I saw broadcasters, jockey, and trainers. It was an atmosphere I love: horses, horse people, and lots of great racing.
The Preakness Stakes
Being near the finish line also meant that we were near the famous winner’s circle for the Preakness and the traditional saddling spot for the race’s starters. Of course, it all looked smaller than it appears on television, but that made it easier to see everything. As we got closer to the Preakness itself, I saw the horses trickle in from the barns and their connections saddle them in the infield: Classic Empire, Senior Investment, Gunnevera, Looking at Lee, Term of Art, and more. Always Dreaming saddled inside in the regular paddock and then joined the field when it was time for the post parade. The crowd in front of me pushed forward toward the rail and I did my best to find a good spot for my short self to see the action as it flew by us. The starting gate was at the end of the stretch; they would pass by the finish line once before crossing it for real so we would get to see the start of the race and its end. As the field came on to the dirt oval for the post parade, we heard “Maryland, My Maryland.” We watched each of the ten starters walk by us, famous names and famous faces passing the crowd in turn. Classic Empire. Always Dreaming. Gunnevera. Hence. Cloud Computing. The names I had heard bandied about for months were about to flash by us to determine if Belmont Day would be a Triple Crown try or another year of classics with no decisive star.
They loaded into the gate as easily and casually as any other race in the world. Clear in every hair on their body and every sinew of muscle, though, was how extraordinary these colts were. How lucky we all were to be there, to witness this next bit of history. We stood where millions of people have over the nearly 150 years of Triple Crown races. As the gates opened and they all flew into motion, the field joined those immortals, notching their place in history.
Always Dreaming took off with Classic Empire, a speedy duel developing as they flew by us the first time. I knew there would be no Derby-Preakness double as they battled, the fractions coming faster than I would have liked for the Derby winner. Despite his good showing in the Derby, I could tell that he was laboring and wouldn’t finish in front this day. As Always Dreaming faded and Classic Empire took over, the field made their run at him and from the rush emerged Cloud Computing, closing in fast. As they entered the last furlong, the two met up, battling on the front end noses apart, all of this playing out before us at ground level. The scene flashed by in an instant and, at the same time, the sensation of the history and the perception of the moment had the image of the two colts battling for the Preakness lingering in our mind’s eye for much longer. Sure, 2017 would have no Triple Crown. No colt emerged from this first part of the year with the assurance that he was the king of them all quite yet. None of that, though, would diminish the experience of a classic race run on a cool spring day in Maryland, My Maryland.
Another Check off the Bucket List
Every time I leave a racetrack, I feel the inevitable pull to return. I left Pimlico ready to come back again the next year, much as I had felt leaving Churchill Downs. The large crowds can be exhausting, but those moments in the paddock and at the rail fades that into the background. The joy of the horses flying by eclipses the realization that I was not going to win any money on this particular race. The cards are long, but the days are short. The Preakness is just short of two minutes, but the pageantry and the history last a lifetime. The party in the infield. The blanket of Black-Eyed Susans. The Woodlawn vase. The fans shouting at their horses, urging them on with moneyed fervor. Like the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness is another experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Any chance to be a part of this ultimate achievement in racing is one to take and to savor.
Sure, we won’t have a Triple Crown winner this year, but each year the hope is there. Each year we watch, we speculate, and we gather to watch all of our questions be answered by the four-legged competitors in front of us. What better way to do all of that than in person? I had a grand old time at Old Hilltop and I encourage you to do that too.