Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Around 90 minutes prior to post time of the big race, Miss Preakness ’96, Jaime Fox, declared she was having a wonderful Saturday. She’d spent the day on the pristine “haves” portion of the Pimlico infield, traipsing among corporate-sponsored tent parties, where much of Maryland’s high society ate soft-shell crabs and jumbo shrimp, drank the best wines Free State vineyards could ferment, and peed in air-conditioned bathroom stalls.

“Everybody here is just so nice,” Fox said, flashing one of those the-world-hasn’t-fucked-me-over-yet! smiles that all good beauty queens have at the ready.

Fox stopped beaming, however, when she was asked if her Miss Preakness duties would include a personal audience with the far larger, far less moneyed portion of the crowd that dwelled on the other side of track, beyond the caterers’ trucks and Pimlico’s well-kempt hedges.

“Oh, no! No, no, no!” Fox shrieked. “I’m not going over there! It’s dangerous!”

The young pageant-winner’s anxieties weren’t unreasonable. Had Fox ventured to the other side of the infield, it’s unlikely she would have retained ownership of the pretty white dress, heels, and ornamental sash that made up her race-day uniform, let alone that precious smile.

On the other side, everybody wasn’t so nice.

Take Baltimore Mike, for example. Baltimore Mike, an insurance adjuster during the week, was playing cave man for the 11th straight Preakness. Unlike Miss Preakness, Baltimore Mike wasn’t having such a grand time Saturday. He could put up with the ubiquitous squalor, set off by a centerpiece of leaking portajohnnies that did an OK job of filtering human waste but a lousy job of hanging onto it. And he didn’t seem to mind being surrounded by puke-stained pubescents. It’s doubtful a Serbian death camp would provide a vista much more horrific than that of the late-afternoon Pimlico infield, but Baltimore Mike’s status as a veteran meant he’d seen it all before. On this Preakness, it was what he hadn’t seen that had him so pissy.

“No boobs yet,” grieved Baltimore Mike an hour before post time. “No boobs at all.”

He’d come to the track around sunrise with a bad attitude, several cases of beer, and three handmade cardboard signs—each bearing a dumbass plea for women to bare their breasts. Sadly, the only thing that separated Baltimore Mike from other male infielders was his placards. Just a few minutes after he’d whined about not seeing any skin, Baltimore Mike’s pathetic prayers were answered. A few dozen yards to his left, a wasted coed in an orange bikini who’d been hoisted atop the shoulders of a similarly spent young man finished off what was surely not her first beer bong of the afternoon and ripped off her top. A horde of young males converged on the scene like, well, young males on exposed breasts.

Such is the Preakness, where the game—on both sides of the grounds—is to see and be seen. It’s a horse-racing happening, but the actual racing of horses has become almost irrelevant to the event.

The off-track goings on dominated the 1996 Preakness Week for a lot of reasons. Neither Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone nor heavy favorite Unbridled Song made the trip to Baltimore, so even among actual race fans, interest was at a near all-time low. (Think how depressing a Lakers-Celtics championship series would have been with Magic and Bird in street clothes.)

All the interesting characters at Pimlico, in fact, were two-legged. People were chattering about the legendary former jockey Angel Cordero, serving as a trainer in a Triple Crown race for the first time. And D. Wayne Lukas, a veteran trainer whose streak of six straight wins in Triple Crown races—with four different horses—was the toast of the hard-core set.

“What Lukas has done, that’s never happened before in racing, and it’ll never happen again,” declared Bernie Dickman, a Florida writer now in his fourth decade covering racing.

But even Dickman had no trouble admitting that because Lukas is a behind-the-scenes guy his feat didn’t mean horse doodoo to the average Joe or the future of racing. It’s trendy for track owners like Pimlico’s Joe De Francis to gripe about the need for slot machines and other governmental concessions to help out the sport, but Preakness Week revealed that what horse racing needs is a star. More than 80,000 people may have come to the track on Preakness Day, but just 4,000 showed up the previous weekend to watch and place wagers on another stakes race with an elite field, the Maryland Million.

“Racing needs a hero. We all need heroes,” Dickman lamented. History has shown that the only way to become a hero in horse racing—one that transcends the track scene—is to win all three legs of the Triple Crown. It’s been nearly 20 years since that feat was last accomplished. But despite the time that’s passed, the crowd at Pimlico last weekend had much more familiarity with the horse that did that (Affirmed) than it did with last year’s Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners (Thunder Gulch and Timber Country, respectively).

Until that sort of hero comes along, Maryland racing will have no choice but to depend on this once-a-year windfall, depravity and all.

The Hon. Parris Glendening was wearing a smile every bit as bright and warm as the late afternoon sun while handing the owners of Louis Quatorze the first-place trophies for the 121st running of the Preakness. After stepping off the podium from the winner’s circle, Glendening exulted in the $25 million he expected the day’s events would bring state coffers. He then looked around the grounds of the storied track and waved his arm in a sweeping gesture. “This,” he pronounced with a grin, “is the culture of Maryland.”

Back on the other side of the track, a semibikinied exhibitionist was being led away in handcuffs by police. No shirt, no shoes, no clue.—Dave McKenna