<
>

In Preakness infield, party is the only event that matters

Arash Markazi/ESPN

BALTIMORE -- It's 9 a.m. on Saturday, and I'm at a bikini contest.

I'm not sure what the ideal time is for a bikini contest, but 9 a.m. seems early. Then again, so does pounding Jäger bombs at this hour, but the tank top-wearing bro standing near me is already three shots in before the first high-heeled contest even takes the stage ... so who am I to judge?

"What the f--- you looking at?" the bro asks me as I admittedly have been staring at him with all the interest of a televised car chase destined to end poorly. "This is the Jäger stage, ain't it?"

After narrowly avoiding my first mid-morning fight, I had to admit he had a point. We are standing in front of the "Jägermeister Stage" with two huge banners of the bottle on each side, situated in the infield at Pimlico before the Preakness. There are also three Jägermeister-sponsored betting windows scattered through the infield, as well as a "Jäger Dome," where they are making every imaginable concoction with every frat boy's favorite licorice-tasting liquor.

The official drink of the Preakness is the Black-Eyed Susan. It is a mixture of vodka, bourbon, orange juice and sours, garnished with an orange slice and cherry. It's a classy beverage served over crushed ice in souvenir glasses to the men in bright suits and women in big hats sitting in Pimlico's grandstands. The unofficial drink of the Preakness infield, however, is Jägermeister, and more specifically Jäger bombs (wherein a shot of Jägermeister is dropped into a cup of Red Bull, then chugged), which makes perfect sense for the most salacious party on the sports calendar. When was the last time anything good happened after a round of Jäger bombs? It's a one-way ticket to blackout city, which was seemingly the destination for many who packed the infield at Pimlico on Saturday.

The Preakness is known as "The Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown" and it certainly plays the part of the middle child looking for a way to get attention while bookended by its two more beloved siblings in horse racing's Triple Crown calendar. The Kentucky Derby is the crown jewel of the Triple Crown and takes place at legendary Churchill Downs. It's "The Run for the Roses" and "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports." The Belmont Stakes is the final and longest leg of the Triple Crown. It's "The Test of the Champion" and takes place in New York. The Preakness? Well, it takes place in Baltimore, at a race track in a part of town that has seen better days.

But what the Preakness lacks in pageantry and locale, it makes up for with its infamous infield. This haven of debauchery and depravity resting inside the one-mile oval at Pimlico is far more entertaining than any extravagant hat or seersucker suit. It is a state-sanctioned frat party on steroids that is as quintessential Baltimore as crab cakes and the O's and Ravens. It is, as Pimlico bills it, "The People's Race...The People's Party."

Most of the people attending the party, however, couldn't care less about the race. There are two distinct events going on here: the Preakness on the tracks and the Freakness in the infield, and there is no connection between the two outside of the address. It is clear early on while walking around the muddied infield as rain pours down that few, if any, of the thousands carrying around refillable red and blue plastic beer mugs and doing shots know that races are even taking place. There is no visible view of the finish line from the infield. The only real glimpse of the track is the backstretch, if you can handle the odor of the adjacent port-a-potties. There are screens displaying the races, but no one seems interested in the action at all.

It's not as if those frolicking around the infield while races are taking place are given much reason to care about what is going on around them. The infield has its own entertainment schedule. After the bikini contest starts things off in the morning, performers ranging from Chris Jansen and All Time Low to Fetty Wap and Chainsmokers perform until the start of the Preakness Stakes.

There is a complete disconnect between the madness that is Pimlico's infield and the action that is actually taking place on the track. This is nothing new, of course. Back in 1999, no one drinking in the infield knew that a drunken spectator had stumbled onto the track during the seventh race and tried to punch a horse, Artax, who was favored to win the race. While races took place Saturday, Fetty Wap was on stage singing "My Way" and "Trap Queen." There was never an announcement of the results to any of the races, and the news of two horses dying during the first four races Saturday likely didn't reach many drinking in the infield until they had left and sobered up, whenever that might have been. The main event of the day for race fans was the Preakness Stakes, but when Chainsmokers finished as the final musical act of the day, most of the infield dispersed. It was mostly empty by the time Exaggerator pulled the upset and beat Nyquist.

Many of the college-aged infield revelers on Saturday don't remember or were too young to experience the height of the infield's rowdy days a decade ago, when you could bring your own beer and wasted dudes raced atop rows of port-a-potties as other wasted dudes pelted them with beer cans until they fell off. It led to some classic YouTube videos and also led to the Maryland Jockey Club in 2009 banning the old BYOB tradition and separating the port-a-potties, making it harder to use the plastic roofs as a 40-yard dash surface. It didn't go over well. After attracting 112,222 in 2008, only 77,850 attended in 2009.

Pimlico's infamous infield, however, has made a full recovery. There were a few missteps along the way, such as the introduction of an infield mascot named Kegasus, a beer-bellied centaur who trumpeted a "10-hour party to celebrate a two-minute race," but for the most part, they have hit the mark. Fans can't bring their own beer, but they can buy a plastic mug and get unlimited refills throughout the day as they watch live music. It's a more commercialized affair now than before with Budweiser, Jägermeister, Jack Daniels, New Amsterdam Vodka and Red Bull sponsoring drinking booths and bars throughout the infield. It has led to record crowds in recent years, including 135,256 on Saturday, a new Preakness record, despite the rain.

The entrance and exit to Pimlico's infield is an underground, concrete tunnel, and as fans begin to embark on their walk of shame out of the infield back home, it conjured up memories of Andy Dufresne escaping prison during a torrential downpour in The Shawshank Redemption. You could almost hear Morgan Freeman talking about Andy crawling to freedom "through 500 yards of s--- smelling foulness" as one fan stopped in the crowded mess midway to, well, relieve himself.

"I love the Freakness!" the man said as his friends tried to block him from public view. "Best day ever!"