BALTIMORE (AP) — Looking resplendent in a light blue seersucker suit, a nifty hat and a black bow tie, Stephen Allen adapted quickly to the finer points of watching a Triple Crown race from the infield.
Allen had a beer mug in his right hand, one that cost $60 (including $40 admission) but entitled him to unlimited refills at several stations in the middle of Pimlico Race Course. In his left hand, he had several betting tickets.
The 24-year-old took a flight from North Carolina to join the thousands of revelers for what he called “my first big horse race.”
But seersucker? In 2011?
“It’s a horse race. You just have to wear seersucker,” Allen insisted.
Asked how the ladies reacted to his outfit, Allen replied, “They’re loving it.”
Ninety minutes after arriving at 9:30 in the morning, Allen was a few sips away from finishing his second beer.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said his friend, who was dressed similarly.
To which Allen quickly added, “We’ll let the horses do the sprinting.”
Back in the day when Pimlico officials allowed the infield patrons to haul in their own kegs and tote dozens of cases of beer, the scene was wild and dangerous. Full beer cans were sent flying into the crowd, and drunken teenagers running across the tops of the portable toilets were prime targets.
Now there’s unlimited beer and a mascot named Kegasus, a bearded centaur who advocated drinking heartily.
Some followed his example. But it all seemed just a little bit more civil.
“The difference between the old days and now,” a member of the emergency response team said, “is there are not as many fights and no one is getting hit with beer cans.”
Tom Soper, a 43-year-old computer programer, was at his usual spot along the fence at the back of the stretch. He said he’s been at the same location for the past 20 years.
“It’s changed a lot. It’s a lot better atmosphere,” Soper said. “It’s a lot more comfortable, more sociable, an older crowd, maybe. The younger crowd is out of it. You don’t see as many fights.”
Even though it was more mellow than in years past, the “Family Section” on the far side of the infield — where only soda and water were sold — was virtually empty.
Those in the infield aren’t there to see the horses. It’s all about drinking, soaking in the sun on an 80-degree day and watching the people walk by.
Bernard Jones and Corey Feldman were dressed to be seen. The 28-year-olds flew in for a bachelor party and went to a thrift store to buy their outfits.
Jones wore a dress shirt with the sleeves cut off, a tie and shorts. Feldman was sporting a full-length rabbit fur coat.
“It was like a light shining from heaven on this rabbit fur coat,” Feldman said of his shopping experience. “Fifteen dollars later I walked out a happy man.”
Jones and Feldman were first-time Preakness attendees. They were part of an infield crowd that has grown significantly in size over the past two years because people got over the fact they couldn’t bring their own beer, and Pimlico vendors did their part by eliminating the long lines for refills.
“This is so much better than last year,” said 24-year-old Phil Kerschner, who was poised to walk onto a line consisting of two customers.
“When they stopped letting us bring in our own beer, we stopped coming for a couple of years,” firefighter Jay Williams said. “With the unlimited beer mugs, I decided to come back and give it another try. Things are looking pretty interesting this year.”
And safe. Catherine Walters and Eileen Murphy had tickets in the grandstand and wore expensive dresses that made them look as if they ventured out of the corporate tents. Each had a $5 cup of beer in hand, and lamented not being able to purchase the unlimited mug.
“It looks like the infield is a lot of fun,” Walters said. “We just wanted to scope it out.”
Even though the beer was plentiful and available, many followed the marathon-not-a-sprint approach.
Scott Schmidt, 23, was smoking a cigar and on his second beer after arriving an hour earlier.
“You have all day,” he reasoned. “It’s not like the beer taps are going anywhere.”
University of Maryland senior Margo Kline appeared to take a different approach. She had two Bloody Mary’s on the way to the track and was on her fifth beer shortly after 11 a.m.
“I’m a sorority girl. I’m used to this,” she declared. “I just got a 3.8 (grade point average), so it’s time to celebrate.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)