BALTIMORE — Given Pimlico's crumbling condition, calling the Preakness the second jewel of the Triple Crown might insult precious stones everywhere. Then again, the race has always had its roguish charms.
Preakness Day wasn't so much about the young Thoroughbreds running on the track as it was about the young party crowd pushing shopping carts carrying beer-filled coolers across four lanes of Northern Parkway traffic and eventually onto the Pimlico infield for a joyous Saturday of boozing and betting.
Then last year, prohibition arrived. There were no shopping carts. There were no coolers. Alas, there were no young people. Fearing a full-fledged alcoholic apocalypse, the Pimlico powers-that-be placed a first-time ban on importing adult beverages through the track gate that, as it turns out, had disastrous results.
Attendance plummeted from 112,222 in 2008 to 77,850 in 2009. That's the kind of money drop that grabs attention, that spurs action, and that leads to things like "Get Your Preak On."
That's the Preakness's new tagline, dreamed up by a Washington, D.C., advertising agency to lure the party crowd back to Ol' Hilltop. The BYOB ban will still be enforced, but the track is offering other intoxicating incentives. Infield ticket prices have dropped to $40. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m, draft beers will sell for a buck. And patrons purchasing a $20 Preakness mug are entitled to unlimited refills, which, considering the 6:05 p.m. post time, promises to be plenty.
Yet, right in the middle of such sought-after mayhem is the man who is the direct antithesis of "Get Your Preak On."
Todd Pletcher is calm and calculated, racing's poster child for organized efficiency. His stable has 175 horses and 150 employees. He doesn't have time to blow his cool. "I never saw where yelling helped anything," he said Friday morning outside the Preakness Stakes Barn.
He also has Super Saver, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, and the reason that sometimes, out of nowhere, just walking along, Pletcher will start to "crack a smile."
Yet this has to be something of a paradox for the 42-year-old trainer. Pletcher loves to give his horses plenty of time between races, yet Super Saver is running just two weeks after the Derby. Pletcher craves order, yet between the bikini contests, the sonic decibels — O.A.R. and the Zac Brown Band have replaced ZZ Top on this year's set list — and the imbibing, the Pimlico infield is usually gleefully out of order.
Not that Pletcher is unhappy to be here, mind you. "If you've got the Derby winner, and he's doing well, you've got to come to the Preakness and take your shot," he said Friday.
Bob Baffert knows the feeling. He and Mike Pegram, the co-owner of second choice Lookin At Lucky, are more of the "Get Your Preak On" kind of guys. Why, hanging out Friday morning with Baffert was former Maryland quarterback Mike Tice, the ex-Minnesota Vikings head coach and current Chicago Bears line coach, who is known to enjoy a good time. When Lookin At Lucky worked on the Pimlico track, and one of Baffert's buddies complained about his view, the trainer quipped, "We'll put you on Tice's shoulders."
Lookin At Lucky has been Baffert's own bad-news bear. The trainer is trying a new jockey, 25-year-old Martin Garcia, hoping for a change of luck, though Baffert is still not sure what he has in the Derby favorite who was "T-boned" in the first furlong and finished sixth.
"He's never had a chance to show his stuff," Baffert said.
Super Saver strutted his stuff two weeks ago. Now the WinStar wonder must do it again, of course, which is never easy. On race eve, however, a poised Pletcher copped to just one worry.
"I think he's getting a little spoiled," the trainer said. "I've got to watch the girls around the barn; too many peppermints and carrots."
Meanwhile, Pimlico hopes that "Get Your Preak On" is the carrot that brings its party crowd back.