On Preakness day last year, Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill and his fun-loving crew found their way to the seemingly never-ending Pimlico party that is InfieldFest.
Today, beer and bikinis were the last things on Shug McGaughey’s mind.
The Hall of Fame trainer sat, quiet and motionless, on a folding chair inside the shedrow of the stakes barn, never taking his eyes – and presumably his thoughts – off his Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, just a few feet away in stall 40.
Dressed in a white shirt, blue vest and tan slacks, the 62-year-old McGaughey was a picture of calm, relaxed but admittedly nervous about the big day.
“A little bit, yeah,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the 140-acre spread that is Pimlico, the infield party went on. The biggest crowd this side of the Mug Club and the portable toilets gathered at the Jagermeister stage, first for the traditional bikini contest, then for local band Kristen & the Noise – who powered through three fantastic sets – and finally for rising country music recording artist Florida-Georgia Line.
The stage was flanked on either side by large video screens, showing the day’s racing. Yes, there is also racing on Infield … uh, Preakness day.
“Hey, look! A race happened!” one fan said to his friend, as the horses crossed the wire for today’s opener.
“It looks like they’re running in slow motion,” the friend said.
“That’s because they are,” was the reply. “It’s a replay.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Nearby, beach volleyball was replaced by flag football this year, which actually felt more appropriate given the gray skies and cool breeze that made it seem cooler – and much more comfortable – than 71 degrees.
There were tents for eating, drinking and betting, games and souvenirs, all surrounding a crowd that was dressed in its usual eclectic attire. There was a tall young woman in a blue dress and peacock feather hat.
One man wore and rainbow-colored umbrella hat, the ideal infield accessory for any kind of weather. Another was dressed in a full gorilla suit. I knew it was a man and not an actual gorilla, when he had to lift up his face to drink his beer.
And there were T-shirts. “Come at me, Orb,” one read, a play on the popular “Come at me, bro,” saying young people use these days. Orb backwards, of course, is bro.
“It’s the Preakin’ weekend,” read another in neon yellow, which was also the color of choice for the gang from Long Island wearing “Keep Calm and Pony On” gear. Not exactly sure what that means.
Back in the infield this year was the graffiti wall, a massive black chalkboard scrawled with all sorts of names and sayings and pictures, many of the R-rated variety. It probably didn’t help that the silver Jack Daniels trailer was parked 50 feet away.
A different kind of horsepower – four Baltimore motorcycle cops – was on display outside the infield tunnel, lined up and ready for action. I thought to myself, how great it would be to be one of these guys, being at Pimlico, on Preakness day, working the infield and getting paid for it.
Then, I remembered what I was doing.
A world-class party surrounded by world-class racing. Welcome to the Preakness infield.
Can I come back next year?