There's nothing like the Preakness and no place like Baltimore
BALTIMORE - I did not grow up with horse racing, even though I grew up in Baltimore, the home of the Preakness at Pimlico, only 4 miles from my childhood house. It took a horse for the ages to get me to my first Preakness.
It was 41 years ago when my oldest brother, his new wife and I fought the traffic on Northern Parkway to get a parking spot in the vast lot across from the Pimlico backstretch. We ended up in the infield the year the Preakness scene took off, exactly 100 years after the race began.
The Preakness is the first place to see the Kentucky Derby winner. In 1973, it was my first chance to see a horse that was on its way to legend. I remember how crowded the infield was that day. I also remember showing my $50 win ticket on Secretariat to friends, bragging about how much I would win. I won $15.
Watch Secretariat's run through the homestretch, with poor Sham running his heart out and making up no ground. Check out all those people running onto the grass course from the infield, flying right up to the rail inside the main track. I was one of those people.
We all wanted to touch Secretariat. It was why they put up a fence the next year. The fence remains. I have stood next to a lot of rails. I have never seen a horse running faster than Secretariat ran the afternoon. We await the next Secretariat.
The Derby overwhelms Louisville. The Preakness is not like that, because Baltimore is a much bigger city with a much longer history, from Poe to Ruth to Mencken to the great Native Dancer, Johnny U., the Robinsons (Frank and Brooks), Cal Ripken and Michael Phelps.
Baltimore's Washington Monument stands guard over the classic Mount Vernon section just north of the downtown that was first revitalized by the Charles Center and then really took off when the Inner Harbor was developed in the 1980s.
Baltimore is Little Italy and Fells Point, the neighborhoods by Patterson Park, very upscale Guilford, Homeland and Roland Park (Miss Shirley's on Cold Spring Lane, 3 miles from Pimlico, is a must for breakfast). It is Sherwood Gardens, the two cathedrals, world famous Johns Hopkins Hospital and the classic Walters Art Gallery. It is the Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center and the harbor that separates them. It is where HBO's "The Wire" was shot, in a classic art imitates life series that felt like the truth because it was the truth.
The Preakness has become as much a party as a horse race. The 1973 race was my first and last infield run. That scene is for teenagers and college students who want to see and hear all the live acts and do whatever it is teens and college students do in 2014.
The great 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was conducted at Pimlico. So was the greatest Preakness I have ever seen, Sunday Silence over Easy Goer in 1989.
I have been to every Preakness since 1978 and have no plans ever to miss one again. When anybody asks me for my favorite Triple Crown race, the answer is always the same - the Preakness, because it's home.
I have been in Philly for nearly 30 years and would never have wanted to work anywhere else. The Daily News fit my personality from the day I started.
Still, home is home, and the trip home in mid-May every year never disappoints.
Pimlico is old and unkempt, beat-up and anything but corporate, like Churchill Downs. I usually wander around one day during Preakness Week to check out the places where I used to hang. I love it all still.
The massive grandstand where I sat when I first really got into the game is empty every day but the Friday and Saturday of Preakness Week. Almost all of the money is bet away from the track now. And whoever is at the track is watching on television.
I was in that grandstand watching the Hoover Handicap in 1978, certain I was about to make the first big score of my life. Tiger Castle over Kohoutek, $61.80 exacta. I had it cold, and I did not have it for $2.
One of the first years I covered the Preakness for the DN, I was in demand from all of my out-of-town writer friends. They wanted to eat like Baltimoreans. Naturally, I took them to Obrycki's on Pratt Street in East Baltimore.
I ordered for everybody, a three-course meal - crab soup, crab cakes and steamed crabs. I had to explain how to beat up and then carve up the crabs, but nobody complained. And nobody needed desert.
Sadly, that Obrycki's is gone. So is Hausner's with its art gallery and Marconi's, a restaurant from another age. When I look at the listing of the city's 50 best restaurants, I recognize only a few, including the classic Tio Pepe, a few blocks from that monument to our first president.
Little Italy, just east of the Inner Harbor, remains, in all its glory, a neighborhood that shares space with restaurants, classic and new. Every Thursday of Preakness Week, Andrew Beyer, the great horse-racing writer who popularized the use of speed figures, now retired from the Washington Post and a friend for 3 decades, hosts a dinner at one of the restaurants in Baltimore's iconic neighborhood. Lately, it has been at old-school Chiapparelli's, home of a legendary salad and enough pasta to make Friday a day when food is unnecessary.
Writers and broadcasters and gamblers are in attendance. There is no talk of politics or religion or baseball. It is the Preakness. It is horse racing. It is, who do you like and why.
I listen a lot. If I have an opinion, I explain it. If I have a strong opinion, I listen in case somebody has a better opinion or knows something I had not considered. If you stop listening, you stop learning. And, if you stop learning, you just stop.
Like Derby Day, Preakness Day is a long day of waiting for 2 minutes of action. It is always the anticipation that makes everybody in horse racing so nervous. You are dealing with high-strung animals that might have run brilliantly last time, but, for one of a thousand reasons, lost that edge in the interim. And nobody really knows that until they run the race.
Less than an hour after the Preakness, winners and losers gather outside the stakes barn to relive the race, the journey and, in those special years, the possibility of a Triple Crown in 3 weeks. Nobody really wants to leave, but eventually the traffic clears and everybody disappears.
I head out to get a few dozen crabs in a brown paper bag and, in a final tribute to my hometown, gather an eclectic group of writers/broadcasters/family/friends to beat up the crabs while rehashing the Preakness.
Then, without warning, it is Sunday morning, time for one final stop at the barn and then the trip home, that Preakness a memory, the next one a year away.