A few weeks ago, one of my editors mentioned that I’d be getting credentialed to attend the 148th running of the historic Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, wedged between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

My only initiation into the world of horse racing came through the classic movie “A Bronx Tale,” when Sonny’s crew ripped up their tickets before the race ended as they learned Eddie Mush had bet on the same horse, Kryptonite.

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Immediately, trepidation and a mild panic set in.

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I shared my apprehension with my mom, who simply said, “Think of it as an adventure.”

So that was the mindset as I walked into the antiquated facility in Park Heights on Saturday afternoon. My first thought was, “Damn, this place is a dump.”

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As I lingered around the finish line, with nattily attired owners and their sharply dressed entourages gleefully walking down, bathed in the pleasant sunlight and the soft-hued splendor of dimpled seersucker while yelling, “Our horse won!”, it felt weird to be in the presence of that level of wealth, given the reality of poverty, squalor, decay and abandonment taking place daily directly across the street.

Former Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. talks with a guest in the VIP tents at the 148th Preakness Stakes. (Paul Mancano/The Baltimore Banner)

Another thing that caught my attention was the pulsating music wafting over from the infield that continued to build its way to a crescendo as revelers drank, danced, partied and moshed, eagerly anticipating the Bruno Mars concert later.

As my colleague Brandon Weigel wrote in his “How to make the most of Pimlico” column a few days ago, “Preakness is more than a horse race — it’s also a rock concert, a huge outdoor party with a Super Bowl-size crowd and a major part of the state’s cultural fabric, all wrapped into one.”

Another thing that struck me was the sartorial splendor of the folks in the grandstands, the couples in matching shades of orange, pink and yellow whose outfits obviously took some effort and days of coordination.

The floral prints and dresses draped on a sea of beautiful women assaulted the eye, as did an impressive array of every bowtie design you can imagine. And the hats, the hats! The majority of them put church ladies on Easter Sunday to shame.

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I wandered around the facility, struck by the amount of alcohol that was being consumed and the levels of inebriation that can be achieved so early in the afternoon.

And then there were the sights you won’t see on national television.

Church ladies would be envious of many of the magnificent hats on display at Preakness. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

I’m referring to the compulsive gamblers walking around the dilapidated facility with sagging postures and depression etched on their faces as they restlessly, nervously and irritably hovered around the betting windows.

It was offsetting, seeing so many people who were obviously entrenched in that swamp of addiction and the physical and emotional toll it had on them.

I shot down to the paddock to look at the celebrated stars of the day, the horses, before they went into the starting gate. I was flabbergasted by their size, gait, majesty, musculature and beauty, but I was then smacked by the reality of how dangerous and life-threatening this sport can be to these beautiful creatures.

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That was confirmed shortly thereafter, when the Bob Baffert-trained Havnameltdown, the favorite to win the Chick Lang Stakes, was euthanized after throwing jockey Luis Saez and suffering an injury on the far turn in the sixth race of the afternoon. According to a statement from 1/ST Racing, the parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club, Havnameltdown suffered an inoperable left fore fetlock injury.

As Saez was strapped to a backboard and transported to nearby Sinai Hospital, my thoughts then veered toward the 5-foot warriors who ride these horses to victory or defeat, men who often starve themselves and use diuretics to make weight, often suffering from muscle weakness and dehydration as a result.

They’re elite athletes as well, jockeys such as Javier Castellano, Feargal Lynch, Irad Ortiz Jr., Jaime Rodriguez, Joel Rosario, Sheldon Russell, John Velazquez and others, mostly faceless operators in this thing called the Sport of Kings, men from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, the Dominican Republic and other countries who put their own lives on the line with each breathtaking ride.

In the end, National Treasure, also trained by the Hall of Famer Baffert, rumbled down the homestretch to win the race, foiling the favored Mage’s bid to win the Triple Crown. Baffert, who was banned from Preakness last year in the wake of a positive drug test for his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, became the winningest trainer in Preakness history.

“This business is twists and turns, ups and downs,” Baffert said after the race. “We started out great, we had a horrible race and we’ve been totally wiped out after [Havnameltdown] got hurt. ... Losing that horse today really hurt. It’s been a very emotional day. I love Pimlico. I love Baltimore. I love these horses.”

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The win on National Treasure was the first in 13 Preakness tries for jockey John Velazquez. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

John Velazquez, the 51-year-old winning jockey from Puerto Rico, celebrated his first win at Preakness after 12 previous rides here.

“With all of the blessings that I’ve had and all the success I’ve had in other races, not having won this one was definitely missing,” Velazquez said. “It’s very special to have it.”

My first Preakness was truly an experience, though I was troubled by the dichotomy of decadence surrounded by a river of urban decay and neglect. It’s a Baltimore institution worthy of celebration and scrutiny, a great place to go people watching and witness one of America’s sporting traditions.

Despite my cynicism, I did enjoy my first foray into the world of horse racing. I look forward to checking it out next year with a better perspective on the industry and its impact on the local economy, learning more about the horses, trainers and jockeys, purchasing some new hats to better fit in and having another opportunity to grab one of those delectable black-eyed Susans.

alejandro.danois@thebaltimorebanner.com

Alejandro Danois was a sports writer for The Banner. He specializes in long-form storytelling, looking at society through the prism of sports and its larger connections with the greater cultural milieu. The author of The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, he is also a film producer and cultural critic.

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