Despite growing up across the street from Pimlico Race Course, Aimee Ringgold for years never attended any official events associated with the Preakness Stakes.

Although the historic race is open to the public, she didn’t feel the race or the events surrounding it were marketed to her.

“It’s something in your neighborhood. I just wasn’t exposed to that, and I literally lived across the street,” said Ringgold, a 49-year-old upper Park Heights resident who is Black. “None of my friends ever went. And we had a lot of kids in my neighborhood. I never saw them going over there.”

That changed last year when she attended the track’s George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, which featured the AfroPreak Lounge, a curated pavilion with DJs, food and a cash bar. Tickets for that experience start at $200 per person.

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The Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the famed Triple Crown, attracts tens of thousands of people to Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore. But the racial optics of the big day have reflected a noticeable divide between the city’s white and Black populations.

Organizers believe features such as AfroPreak Lounge, along with other initiatives to attract more diverse crowds, are starting to pay off.

“The truth is, we have always been at the Preakness but on someone else’s terms,” said Derrick Chase, one of the organizers of AfroPreak Lounge. “Now, as we have evolved as a people, we should be at the Preakness, but not just by selling peanuts and parking cars. We should show our sophistication. We have always been a colorful and flavorful people. With us being at Preakness on our terms, it makes Preakness better. It’s good for Preakness, and it is good for Baltimore.”

Derrick Chase, left, and LaRian Finney, right, organizers of AfroPreak Lounge at Pimlico on May 16, 2023.
LaRian Finney, a partner in AfroPreak Lounge, said the Meet Me at Preakness campaign helped engage Black residents of Baltimore in the horse race. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

LaRian Finney, Chase’s partner in AfroPreak Lounge, said the past lack of diversity at the Preakness Stakes is reflective of Baltimore.

“A lot of it has to do with the nature of our city. There are a lot of silos,” he explained, adding that Black people have traditionally not attended the race because they did not feel connected.

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Finney touted the campaign Meet Me at Preakness, which raised excitement about the event among state workers, educators, city employees and other Black professionals. He also credited community partnerships with Park Heights, the majority-Black neighborhood that borders the racetrack, with helping to create meaningful relationships with Black Baltimoreans.

“With anything, you have to have the right people at the table and be able to connect the dots where it is authentic and intentional,” Finney said.

Finney, who along with Chase has organized events such as Center Court Baltimore, which was part of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, and the popular, recurring Jazzy Summer Nights, added: “I’m very proud of what we are doing. This could really set a tone for a lot of anchor institutions who say they are committed to intentional inclusiveness. This could be a good bookmark on how to do that.”

Music at the event has been fairly eclectic over the years with acts such as the Zac Brown Band, Sam Hunt, Post Malone, Fetty Wap, Lorde, Maroon 5 and Pitbull. But last year there was a noticeable emphasis on Black artists, with performances by hip-hop royalty Lauryn Hill, Megan Thee Stallion and D-Nice.

Bruno Mars, a Hawaiian-born pop and R&B star with a diverse heritage, is headlining the Preakness LIVE concert after Saturday’s race.

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Audra Madison, director of marketing for the Maryland Jockey Club, could not immediately provide statistics showing if the crowds had become more diverse in recent years. But she said some attendees told her that last year’s event, which featured AfroPreak Lounge, was the first time they felt a part of the Preakness Stakes.

“It felt like Preakness belonged to Baltimore. That was the overarching goal,” she said.

Madison touted Baltimore 1/ST, a campaign launched in 2022 by the Stronach Group’s 1/ST brand in collaboration with Baltimore native and music mogul Kevin Liles, co-founder and CEO of 300 Entertainment. Mayor Brandon Scott consulted with the campaign.

“We’re showcasing and highlighting the city’s rich entertainment, arts and culture,” Madison said. “All those elements have been included intentionally in our programming. You see it in the people, and you feel it.”

Another initiative, Preak Weeks, has highlighted BIPOC- and women-owned businesses in the weeks leading up to the Preakness Stakes — allowing them to give away tickets to their customers.

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The racetrack held a hiring fair April 24 that drew some 200 people for race-day jobs or permanent employment opportunities through various vendors associated with Pimlico.

In 2021, the Stronach Group and the Maryland Jockey Club renamed a major Friday race as the George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, in honor of the Park Heights community leader who died the previous year.

“It shows that we are committed, not only to inclusion to attend the event but the community surrounding Pimlico,” Madison said. “They have been effective.”

AfroPreak Lounge drawing interest

Last year, AfroPreak Lounge attracted 300 guests. This year, Finney and Chase are expecting to host about 500.

“We’re slowly activating this brand,” Finney said. “We probably could have done another 20 sections based on the demands when it went on sale.”

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Finney’s event puts a premium on representation. All of the vendors hired for AfroPreak Lounge are Black, from the sound and light technicians to the bartenders and cleaning crews.

“People who had never considered coming to Preakness are now excited,” he said. “I’m most proud of that.”

Derrick Chase, left, and LaRian Finney, right, organizers of AfroPreak Lounge at Pimlico on May 16, 2023.
Derrick Chase of AfroPreak Lounge and his partner are expecting to draw 500 people this year. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Chase said he felt welcome at last year’s Preakness festivities.

“As you walked in, you could hear the sounds. The soundscape was very familiar to our musical palette. As we entered, we saw the work of [artist] Derrick Adams and other people who spoke to our reality, struggle and desire to celebrate life,” Chase recalled. “The food that was there not only represented the traditional Maryland staples, like crabcakes, but it also had soul food. Anyone who walked in there knew that they were almost in Grandma’s kitchen. The people were dressed to the nine. They knew the occasion called for a certain wardrobe, and they rose to the occasion.”

Why haven’t more Black people attended?

Black Baltimoreans say myriad factors, including the cost, a lack of entertainment acts that appealed to them and an absence of other Black attendees, have kept them away in the past.

“To be honest, it looked like a lot of intoxicated young Caucasians partying and having a good time. And I didn’t come across the street,” Ringgold recalled, adding that she could see the race course across from her parents’ home for 23 years. “Last year piqued my interest. It made it more attractive-looking for someone of my age group. A lot of my friends just went for the first time last year as well. It was nice. People were dressed up. Everyone looked nice. The concert was nice. I thought it was a really good event.”

Chase, too, grew up in Park Heights but said last year was the first time he attended Preakness.

“I never felt invited,” said the 51-year-old businessman, who now lives in Guilford. “There was nothing intentional that suggested that Black people should be there. There was nothing intentional in advertisement, the choice of music and business opportunities. It seemingly was … ‘our thing’ by the people who crafted the Preakness. But we were not considered part of the ‘our.’ We changed that in 2022.”

Such past perceptions kept away Black residents like Devin Morgan, a city native.

“I just felt like it wasn’t a place for people of color to attend,” she said. “I didn’t see anything I could relate to. I’m not a big drinker. The infield was known for that. Horse racing wasn’t something I was exposed to because I was from the city.”

Morgan, 39, said her view of the event changed last year.

“When I actually went, last year was completely different from what I perceived Preakness to be. It almost felt like a warm blanket. There was Black girl magic and Black boy joy everywhere,” she recalled. “It felt like my city had embraced locals of color. Before it felt like it was for outsiders. [Last year] was almost like, here’s a thank you to the locals. You are welcome here.”

Yolanda Jiggetts is CEO of Park Heights Renaissance Inc., which has helped to distribute 800 Preakness tickets during the last two years to Park Heights residents. (Courtesy of Fallston Group)

Community connections

Park Heights Renaissance Inc., a nonprofit that represents the 12 neighborhoods with more than 20,000 residents that surround Pimlico Race Course, wants to make sure their neighborhood is not forgotten after the race is over.

“We want to start with engagement. That is the root of this. We want to put the people first,” said Yolanda Jiggetts, the organization’s CEO. “This isn’t just about attendance at the Preakness. This is about furthering our partnership in redevelopment efforts. For us it is important [that] businesses benefit from this international race each year.”

The organization has also helped to distribute 800 Preakness tickets during the last two years to Park Heights residents.

“We think that it is a step forward,” said Kevin Seawright, board chair of Park Heights Renaissance. “You can’t change all the history, but we can make people feel comfortable being a part of the event. We want to see how this helps the neighborhood throughout the year.”

Kevin Seawright, board chair of Park Heights Renaissance Inc., wants to see neighboring residents engaged throughout the year, not just during Preakness weak. (Courtesy of Fallston Group)

On June 3, the organization will hold its second annual George “Spider” Anderson Preakness Music and Arts Festival, which celebrates the first Black jockey to win the Preakness Stakes, on May 10, 1889. Jiggetts said her organization has received support from the race course’s management for this festival and other initiatives that occur outside of the race.

“It’s important to engage the community so they can understand the history. They can be part of the festivities,” Jiggetts said. “It was an educational experience. I knew that there were African American jockeys but did not know that [Anderson] was the first to win the race and he was from Baltimore City. He was 18. That education is needed to make that connection. It was surprising to some.”

And while traffic congestion from the race has negatively affected residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, essentially forcing many to lock down in their homes for the day, Jiggetts said those areas are being studied and the issues hopefully will be addressed in the future.

One immediate fix has been to add several merchants to the Preakness Stakes festivities. There have also been efforts to “spruce up the community” with flowers and plants that are traditionally showcased at the Preakness Stakes, according to Jiggetts.

Black Baltimoreans say a myriad of factors, including the cost, a lack of entertainment acts that appealed to them and an absence of other Black attendees, have kept them away from Preakness in the past. (Shan Wallace)

Looking forward to return

This year, Ringgold plans to attend the big race. She has her outfit picked out — a monochromatic black ensemble featuring a floral dress and fascinator — and she’s ready to enjoy the day.

“Preakness has a Kentucky Derby feel. You get dressed up, feel good and have a great time,” she said, adding that she’s encouraged by seeing more Black people at the event.

Morgan is also excited to return.

“I want that feeling that I had last year. I got to meet Gayle King and get a picture. That was awesome,” Morgan said. “Being in a crowd where people are supporting others is the type of crowd I want to be in. My outfit is all picked out. The hat is ready, shoes are ready, gloves are ready. I’m looking forward to just being around Black greatness. It is just awesome, and I want to be a part of it.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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