Preakness pregame: Party starts early at Pimlico - NBC Sports

Preakness pregame: Party starts early at Pimlico
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May 14, 2014, 3:15 pm

Besides serving as the state flower of Maryland, the Black-Eyed Susan represents the day before the Preakness to horse racing fans.

That’s when the 90th edition of the $500,000 Black-Eyed Susan for 3-year-old fillies will be held, a competitive 11-horse affair that headlines a strong 13-race program including seven stakes races worth a combined $1.25 million. But Preakness Eve has developed into much more than another afternoon of racing at Pimlico Race Course.

More than 40,000 people are expected Friday, the first of a two-day party at the Baltimore track. Pimlico offers an enticing menu for both bettors and spectators alike.

Friday is called the “The Ultimate Girls Day Out,” with a percentage of the proceeds earmarked for the fight against breast cancer. The highlights include book and autograph signing sessions; a keynote address from actress and author Mariel Hemingway; the Lady Legends for the Cure, which brings together eight retired female riders in a pari-mutuel race; and the People’s People Party, featuring live infield concerts.

The infield is not a good place to watch a race -- you may not see any horses on Friday or Saturday among the crowd -- and it’s not cheap, with Saturday’s general admission costing $70 and another $20 required for a “Mug Club” ticket that provides all-you-can-drink beer. But the concert fare is outstanding.

Since the Preakness attendance dropped to 77,850 in 2009, which coincided with an alcohol ban and a much more low-key atmosphere in the infield, the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) has strived to bring back the party scene, focusing upon booking popular musical performers.

Friday’s infield concerts feature Counting Crows, The Fray and Annie Bosko. Double Grammy Award winner Lorde headlines Saturday’s Preakness InfieldFest concert and there will be performances as well from Switchfoot, Eli Young Band, Sunday Best and Go Go Gadjet.

Due in large part to the infield’s appeal, Pimlico established a new attendance mark in 2012 (121,309), with 117,203 on hand for last year’s Preakness, and MJC President Tom Chucklas expects another record crowd this Saturday if the weather cooperates.

The infield scene has changed a lot over the years.

Ted Mudge, a long-time racing and tote executive who once served as Vice President of Operations at the MJC, is now retired but still attends the Friday-Saturday programs at Pimlico every year. He witnessed his first Preakness in the late 1960s and remembers a much different experience decades ago.

“I can remember they used to hold lacrosse games there so they could get people to come in there. Back in the 70s, they used to have lacrosse games in the infield because that would draw people,” Mudge said. “The teams would play the lacrosse game early and then they would stay for the races.”

The 1970s were the Golden Age in Thoroughbred racing, with Triple Crown champions Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed dominating national headlines.

“A lot of great horses have run at Pimlico in the Preakness Stakes,” Mudge added, “and the sport’s popularity is sagging. But Preakness weekend has become a bigger event locally in recent years due to the concerts in the infield.”

As far as the racing goes, I like Arethusa in the Black-Eyed Susan. The California-based filly figures to receive the set-up needed for her finishing kick and Arethusa offers good value at 8-1 on the morning line.

The $300,000 Pimlico Special for older horses will also be in the spotlight Friday and I’ll recommend the chances of Golden Lad, who posted a sharp victory in his stakes debut two starts back for trainer Todd Pletcher. Listed at an enticing 6-1 in the early odds, Golden Lad should receive an ideal trip with his tactical speed and has captured four of his last five starts.

Friday’s festivities precede the main event, Saturday’s 139th running of the $1.5 million Preakness. Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome will be heavily favored and a victory will send him to New York for a possible sweep three weeks later.

Pimlico will go all out to celebrate the second leg of the Triple Crown with a two-day party.