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Official Review by Andy Mantsch, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The third Saturday in May in Baltimore, Maryland is reserved for one of the richest traditions in American sports. Great horses such as War Admiral, Citation and the great Secretariat all graced this track with famous victories on their way to Triple Crowns. First run in 1873, just about every great race horse in the last century and a half has come to Pimlico with dreams of being draped in the Black-Eyed Susans in front of over 120,000 spectators.
Pimlico race course opened in 1870 with a colt named Preakness winning its first major race, the Dinner Party Stakes. Three years later, the inaugural Preakness Stakes was run. Pimlico has also been home to some other famous races, including “The Great Race” in 1877 and the 2nd Pimlico Special, famously pitting War Admiral against Seabiscuit in 1938. Today the race track is both beautiful and battered by time. There have been many plans to redevelop the track, including a temporary plan to raze and rebuild the track. Plans still seem to be on hold, although renovations ultimately seem inevitable.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Depending on the ticket you purchase, food options will vary greatly. But no matter where you find yourself on Preakness day, food and drink will be in large supply. Options range from standard concessions all the way up to fully-catered buffets for those willing to spend more for the ticket. The infield will have just about anything you can imagine, from hot dogs to lobster. Obviously, food won't be cheap, so bring a lot of cash (it's also helpful to make a wager or two). There are ATMs around in both the concourse and the infield, but you'll be subject to some fairly high ATM fees to go along with the food.
You're also able to bring food in, as long as it's in clear plastic bags, so your safest bet is to pick up some sandwiches or something easy to sustain you for the day, especially if you're going to be in the over-crowded infield. Otherwise, expect long lines and pricey food all day long. The concourse will be slightly easier to access concessions, but if you're in view of the races, the lines won't be convenient. Races run every 30 minutes, so plan your meal trips accordingly.
As far as beverages, well, let's just say they'll be plentiful. The infield will be overflowing with National Bohemian (the cheap beer staple of Baltimore) and Bud Light. More of the infielders have come for the beer and music than the races, so the beer vendors will be ready. As of 2009, the Preakness stopped allowing alcohol to be brought into the venue (for reasons discussed below). So expect beer lines to be long. Beer will also be expensive (in the $6-$10 range), so if you're there for the party, you'll probably want to bring even more cash. A must for Preakness day is a delicious Black-Eyed Susan. The signature drink of the race is available anywhere on the grounds and is absolutely delicious.
There is also a Mug Club option that provides you with unlimited infield drinks and a souvenir mug for $60-$90 (depending when purchased). This is a great option for those looking to imbibe significant amounts of beer from 8am-6:30pm, but this won't help you with the lengthy lines.
For those willing to spend a little more for Preakness day, there are unlimited food drink options that include access to some great areas of the infield that are much more for watching the races. The most elite example is the Turfside Terrace, which is located in the infield along the finish line with tremendous views of all the best parts of the race day spectacle. This ticket ($350 and rising year over year) includes unlimited beer, wine and large lunch and dinner buffets. This section includes everything you could possibly need for Preakness day. A slightly more reasonable option is the Mug & Vine Club, located at the top of the stretch. Tickets are $140 (potentially rising yearly), and include unlimited beer and wine with a cash bar in a private section of the infield. Food, cash bar and betting stations are also available in this section, making it a solid middle ground deal.
There are two completely contrasting atmospheres at Pimlico on Preakness day. The grandstand and the upgraded infield sections make up what viewers around the country think of when they think of the second leg of the Triple Crown. There are beautiful hats, sundresses covered in black-eyed susans and men in seersucker outfits smoking cigars. From either the Preakness Village or Turfside Terrace sections, you can get a bird's eye view of some of the great Preakness traditions. During the turf races, you'll be close enough to practically reach out and touch the horses as they fly by. After the big race, you can grab a glass of wine and line up along the winner's circle to watch the presentation of the beautiful Woodlawn Vase, the most valuable trophy in American sports, valued at $1 million. Afterwards, you can watch the famous painting of the weather vane with the colors of the winning horse and jockey. Of course, you can also see this all from across the track in the grandstand, as well. There's really not a poor view from the seats, although some are definitely better than others. For value, the Grandstand Upper Reserved is further from the track, but cheaper and with a better view of the finish line than the Concourse Box Seats. For gamblers, a betting window is never very far from any of the seating areas, as all of the upgraded infield tickets come with their own.
Then there's the opposite end of the spectrum. The infield fest at Preakness is famous -- or infamous, more aptly. The infield ticket at the Preakness has always been known for one of the nation's largest parties. Until 2009, you could bring beer into the infield, and the patrons did, by the cooler-full. Infamous events such as "the running of the urinals" (you can YouTube it) led to the decision to limit alcohol consumption at the Preakness to only alcohol purchased onsite. The crowds have died down a bit, and the party has lessened a few degrees, which are good things. The party is still large, and the band lineups tend to be a who's who of pop music, with acts such as Lorde, Nas, Maroon 5 and the Zac Brown Band over the years. All tickets at Preakness have access to the infield, but if you're venturing from one of the pricier areas to the infield, expect a major contrast in the experience. For those interested in the infield fest, be mindful there's also a good chance you won't see any horses.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another option to enjoy the Preakness experience for a lower dollar amount and less crowds. The Black-Eye Susan races take place the day before and offer all of the same sections and options as Preakness day at a lower price. You won't have all the ambiance of the Preakness race itself, but overall, the experience is very similar. Even the concert lineups are every bit as impressive. It's another good option for those looking to spend a day with the ponies.
Ok, so the Preakness can't be all flowers and ponies. On your way to Pimlico, you're likely to wonder if you took a wrong turn. The area is far from good, and you'll want to be very careful about where you park your car. Fortunately, on both days around the Preakness, the crowds are large enough that you can feel safe before and after the event. Once you're inside Pimlico, you'll forget about anything outside the track and enjoy your experience, though.
There is a larger "neighborhood" for the Preakness to consider that is the saving grace for the points scale. Downtown Baltimore is a great city for the trip, and I would definitely recommend getting one of the many hotels on the Inner Harbor. The city is largely residential, and I would strongly encourage spending some extra time in the area to enjoy its beauty. The Inner Harbor features some great attractions like Power Plant Live, the National Aquarium and the USS Constellation, but some of my favorite and less touristy parts of Baltimore lie in Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton. Local bars and restaurants have a small neighborhood and welcoming feel with great conversation and local beers. Some of my personal favorites are in Federal Hill. Delia Foley's has some of the best wings you'll find, the Cross Street Market is full of fresh seafood and the Abbey Burger has potentially the best burgers in the world.....and that may not be an exaggeration. Make the Preakness a longer stay and enjoy the great stuff Baltimore has to offer.
There's no better fan/people watching than at a Triple Crown event. Women in huge hats with feathers longer than your arm, colorful dresses and personalities, celebrities in the grandstands, bright suit jackets and a plethora of bow ties are just some of the sites you'll see at the event. All day long, it's smiles, fun and friends. You'll see passion along the rails of the races, with sudden yells of "C'mon 7!" mixed with the cheers of joy and the shrieks of excitement as the horses fly by. For the main event, the mood will become tense and the joyous crowd will slowly build into frenzy and jockey for the best view along the rails. The buildup is spectacular, and the fans are undoubtedly a major part of that.
Inside the infield the fans are of a different variety, but every bit as exuberant. Singing, dancing and celebration are the order of the day for this massive party. You'll see bow ties and khaki-clad gentleman mingling with jean shorts and tank tops. Be prepared to see your fair share of highly intoxicated revelers, as well. The only thing better than the people watching along the rail at Preakness is the people watching in the infield fest.
Plan your trip to and from Pimlico well, because it can be a nightmare if improvised. Pimlico is north of Baltimore along I-83 and off of Northern Parkway. Arriving tends to be pretty easy, as races start early and run all day leading up to the Preakness, and the crowd tends to trickle in gradually. Leaving is where the true mess occurs. As you can imagine, the second the Preakness Stakes race ends there are over 100,000 people trying to leave at once. There is a cab stand near Sinai Hospital, but the line will stretch for quite a distance and the cabs don't always make it to the pick-up point with so many trying to hail them at once outside of Pimlico. You can use car service to get to and from Pimlico, but the post-race navigation and meeting points will be incredibly choked and confused. So what's the best way to manage this? My recommendation if you're not going to partake in the massive amounts of alcohol is to drive and park in any of the paid lots immediately around Pimlico. If you leave early and stay for the last races after Preakness, your travel will go much easier. If you do plan to drink, use one of the local car services. Again, stay after the Preakness Stakes for the last couple of races to allow the masses to clear out and it should be easier to catch your ride.
Inside Pimlico, it's much easier to get around. All of the infield sections are managed by having the appropriate wristband, so it's easy to move between the areas that are included with your ticket. There is a tunnel that goes under the track at the top of the stretch side of the track making traffic flow very consistent. If you're in the infield fest only, you'll have to deal with portable toilets and substantial lines. If you're in any of the other infield areas, there are much nicer restrooms and seldom lines for the trailers they include. Overall, it's pretty easy to navigate once you arrive.
For the infield section entry, Mug & Vine Club should enter to the north side of the grandstand and Preakness Village and Turfside Terrace to the south side. If you get dropped off at the wrong side, the walk around the track can be fairly long.
The Preakness does a tremendous job of offering a ticket for all price points. The other Triple Crown events are fairly limited on your seating and viewing options (usually it's either massed in with the infield hordes or the lap of luxury seats). Preakness offers several mid-level pricing options with track views for those that want to enjoy a true race-day experience without spending an arm and a leg. My personal favorite -- if you have the money to spend -- is the Turfside Terrace. Tickets are $350 for the day, but that includes everything you could possibly need, aside from the wagering. The Mug & Vine Club is a tier down from Turfside Terrace. Your views are still on the track, but further up the stretch, and you won't have direct views of the finish line and post-race festivities. Everything else here is included, and at $140 is a great deal for those wanting to enjoy Preakness day races at mid-level pricing. There are many other areas from which to enjoy the race, and the Preakness website is easy to use, with views from the seats and pricing easily indicated.
There are more extras around Pimlico on Preakness day and weekend than stars can be given. The uniqueness of the traditions and the varied experiences one can have at the event leave your weekend enjoyment almost completely up to you. I've outlined them above, but from the Black-Eyed Susan blanket to the painting of the weather vane, Preakness is full of its unique flavor. The short answer here, go see it and enjoy it for yourself. You'll probably need to go back again and again before you've really enjoyed everything that the third Saturday in May at Pimlico has to offer.
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