Thursday, May 18, 2017

Preakshow: A Day at the Races Baltimore Style

This Saturday afternoon Baltimore (a/k/a Charm City a/k/a The City that Reads a/k/a The Biggest Small Town in America a/k/a future home of The Riot Gear Museum and The Syphilis Shot Memorial) will host the second jewel of horse racing's triple crown. I have now lived in and around Baltimore for more than half my life which may explain the often bitter and jaded tone of a website ostensibly devoted to the light and airy topic of fantasy golf. It wasn't until a few years ago, however, that I braved the infield at Pimlico Race Course for this event that has become a time honored tradition among the strange bedfellows of the local Vineyard Vine/Pinot Grigio crowd and those who think weekends that fail to include tattoos, misdemeanors and vomit are wasted opportunities.     

A major part of the inspiration for finally deciding to go was that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were performing and they had just released Thrift Shop which my kids loved so yeah, I decided to make it a family affair and include my 12 and 9 year old sons (FGK 1 and FGK2) and my 5 year old daughter (FGK3). Valuable life experience I told myself then. Seemed like a good idea at the time I tell myself now. I at least had the good sense to hedge a bit on the full infield experience by buying tickets in a quasi VIP section that had its own bar and bathrooms so we could retreat when things inevitably started getting hairy. 

This all happened way back in 2013 and everything you are about to read I wrote in the immediate aftermath but, for some reason, I never published it. I'm going to spend the next hour or five minutes polishing it up and then I'm going to let it fly even if it sucks because the events of the day as I recall them are story worthy. Just know that some of the references may be dated and some of it may duplicate what I've just written here but our editor was too lazy to rewrite any of it. This is why you should never hire immediate family. 
DATELINE: MAY 18, 2013

For better or worse, Baltimore's current claims to fame are the following: (1) The two-time Super Bowl Champion Ravens; (2) The Wire, (3) The little engine that could without a bloated payroll that is the Baltimore Orioles and (4) The Preakness  - our answer to the Catalina Wine Mixer. (If you don't get that reference, shame on you and you need to watch this scene to get up to speed - POW! and this one). I've always been a fan of Nos. 1 and 2. No. 3 is growing on me despite the fact that I can no longer name twenty major league players and I finally just got my first taste of No. 4.

"You stay classy
Charm City."
Let's start with a little history. They've been running the Preakness for 138 years at a track on the northern outskirts of Baltimore City called Pimlico which was built in 1870. The word "Pimlico" comes from the Greek and means "the flatulent lama." (According to Wikipedia, it's actually named after a 17th century bar in England which explains so much). No one's really sure what goes on there for the other 51 weeks of the year. They just know you don't want to be on the south side or the west side of it after dark. The north side and the east side are ok but you should keep one foot on the gas and one on the brake at red lights just to be safe.

Despite the fact that I have now lived in Baltimore or its environs for almost half my life (still anxiously waiting for the accent to kick-in), I had never attended Preakness. The thought of dragging a 60 lb. cooler full of beer and ice into the middle of an open field at 8:00 a.m. and drinking myself into oblivion by noon never really appealed to me. Besides, that's what golf is for. This year, however, we had the aforementioned Macklemore concert which was just enough of a hook to get me to explore VIP tickets and once those were procured, BOOM, freak show here we come hon.   

After completely blowing-off any logistical planning, we found ourselves driving around the massive facility looking for parking and gaining a better and better appreciation for the expression, "wrong side of the tracks." We finally found what looked like a solid spot at a service station across the street. After carefully backing my car into a spot and paying the overly helpful (baked to the gills) "attendant," I made it very clear that, "we will be leaving early so DON'T BLOCK ME IN!" My man looked right at me with the two glazed donuts he was using for eyes and said, "I got you man . . . I won't block you in." (You can now jump ahead to the part where I go back to get my car which is blocked-in or you can let the excitement build as you read the next few paragraphs).

As we traipsed around to the infield entrance which was on the opposite side of the track, we suffered through a dozen "are we almost there yets" from FGK2, five blown tires by the FGW while wearing her apparently untested shoes that she "thought would be comfortable" and one major face-plant by FGK3 who can't go two minutes without ripping-off a fifteen yard burst before getting leveled by the invisible strong safety. This forced me to bum three napkins to staunch the bleeding from some guy selling crap in front of a barbershop (pretty surprised I didn't have to pay for the napkins) and also spawned the quote of the day from a Baltimore City police officer who directed us to the first aid station and yelled after us, "stay strong baby girl!" (I resisted the urge to yell back "you're my boy Blue!").

By the time we battled our way into the infield and endured the first chorus of Seven Nation Army in the tunnel, we only had about ten minutes until Macklemore was scheduled to perform so we had to skip lunch and head towards the stage which, at that moment was on the other side of the infield closer to our car than it was to us. I think our walking trail would have made a perfect "P" by the time we were done when the letter you're going for when shepherding kids is an "I" or at worst, an "L". (At least it wasn't the dreaded "B"). We hadn't eaten in four hours and I fully expected to look down and see a miniature Aretha Franklin where FGK2 was supposed to be.

Macklemore was of course 20 minutes late hitting the stage because you know it takes a while to set-up for a show that involves (a) picking-up a microphone (b) walking onto a stage and (c) barking-out your one hit song between a series of simplistic expletive laced monologues. ("GET OFF OF MY LAWN!!!") Fortunately, he had the decency to put Thrift Shop third in the batting order after which I used FGK2 and FGK3 as an excuse to head back to the seats and get a Bud Light and a freakin' hamburger.

"It was the guy in the Flacco
jersey. We saw him do it."
At this point, I will say two things about the early afternoon Preakness crowd: (1) It was the most people on the verge of (or past) the point of blacking-out that I have ever seen in one place . . . and that's saying something, and (2) as I was winding my way through the concert mob with FGK3 in front of me and FGK2 behind me, the crowd parted like the Red Sea and people were literally moving bodies out of our way to the point that I was afraid someone might accidentally bump my daughter and turn it into Van Cortlandt Park after Cyrus got shot situation. Bravo Pimlico. 

The rest of our time in the infield passed without incident unless you count us betting on eight horses in three races and not hitting one winner (this included incorrectly picking three horses in a five horse race). At some point between the 8th and 9th race (the Preakness is the 12th race), I realized that I was freezing as what was supposed to be a partly cloudy 70 degree afternoon had become the kind of day that inspired people in Seattle to start paying five bucks for coffee and listening to Pearl Jam. And that was BEFORE it started to rain. They don't allow umbrellas in the infield because then they'd have to set-up a section dedicated to umbrella jousting next to a section dedicated to treating puncture wounds which would drag the event back into the dark ages of Port-o-John races. (I'm not making that up. Here's a clip if you've never seen one - Port-o-John Races). They banned this activity about three years ago when U.S. Foodservice apparently threatened to pull their sponsorship dollars. So that's what it took for the race organizers to crack-down on people running-on and falling-off of portable toilets. (And we complain about the way our city is portrayed on television).

After a quick look at the foreboding skies, we decided to bail. About halfway back to the car, I left the rest of the Fantasy Golf Family on a corner heavily populated by law enforcement personnel (and drunks) so I could double-time it to the car. The plan was going well until I rounded the corner to the thoroughly unsurprising site of my car being more landlocked than Nebraska. For this part of the story, in honor of Jimmy Serrano, we'll call the two guys who were "running" the parking lot "Moron No. 1" and "Moron No. 2" (which makes me "Moron No. 3" for getting myself into this predicament but for the sake of keeping the players straight, I will just be myself though I am of course writing this under a fake name but whatever). Recognizing that I was not visible from the main road and any potential medical personnel and/or witnesses, I decided to play it cool:

FGR: "Hey man, I need to go ahead and get my car out."

"Is this number one?  Put moron
number 2 on the phone."
No. 1: "Alright no problem man no problem . . . which one is it." (On this day I learned that the more times someone tells you "no problem," the bigger the problem).

FGR: "The one in the middle."

No. 1: "Alright no problem no problem." 

He walked inside presumably to get keys to one of the cars so maybe there really was no problem . . . until he walked out with Moron No. 2.

No. 2: "Which car is yours?"

FGR: "That one. The one that's blocked-in even though I told you I was leaving early and not to block it in." (Still calm . . . but slipping).

No. 2: "Alright man that's no problem ummmmmmm . . ." 

At this point he put his hand on his chin and appeared to be either trying to telepathically (a) start one of the other cars or (b) levitate my car.

No. 1: "No problem. Just give us one second man. No problem." 

No. 1 then went back inside. (It wouldn't be until later that I realized that there must have been something burning in an ashtray that they didn't want to waste. In hindsight, I should have gone in with them).

FGR: "Do you or do you not have the keys to any of these other cars?"

No. 2: "Oh no man, they don't leave us the keys." (No shit).

FGR: (With coolness rapidly waning) "So none of these cars are yours but you parked them all around my car when I told you I was leaving early?!?"

No. 1: "Hey man, you never told me you were leaving early."

FGR: "Yes I did! I stood right here and said 'don't block me in because I'm leaving early!'"

"Are you even sure
that's your car man?"
At this point, the volume of both our voices was going up and a few other interested parties were meandering over to check-out the scene. This would probably be a fun part of the story in which to note that I was wearing a very summery blue and white checkered shirt with a red-white and blue striped canvas belt. Oh yeah, I was also wearing a white hat with a pale blue country club logo on the front and my name embroidered on the back. At least they would've been able to identify my body without my wallet. 

No. 1: "Naw man . . . you never said that."

FGR: "You've got to be kidding me." At this point I turned to walk away . . . more to regroup than anything else and then I heard the following words in a tone I know all too well:

No. 1: "Now you're turnin' your back on me?!?!" 

Uh oh. This discussion was officially over because, if I've learned anything about self-preservation over the years, it's to recognize that moment when things are right on the edge of violence . . . and this was one of those moments.

FGR: "Forget it. I'll come back and pick it up later."

And then we shared a truly classic moment of reconciliation right there on Pimlico Road.

No. 2: (Suddenly playing the role of mediator and pointing at me) "Yeah man, he's cool. He's just tryin' to get his car out to pick-up his family."

No. 1: "I know man. I'm sorry." 

And in lieu of a hug-out, we shook hands and I turned to head on my way when a new female character joined the story with a voice from offstage . . . we'll call her Nicole because that was her name.

Nicole: "Where do you live? I'll drive you home."

After a quick assessment of my situation, the general scarcity of cabs in the city of Baltimore and my impression that Nicole was not going to steal one of my kidneys, we climbed into her shiny red Volvo, went and picked-up my family and she drove us home. To this day I think about Nicole everytime I start to lose faith in humanity (pretty much all I do these days is think about Nicole).  

Of course my wife and I then had to drive back to the south side of Pimlico at 9:00 p.m. after the crowd and the traffic had dispersed. Lo and behold we didn't witness any shootings, drug deals or cat juggling so maybe my impression of the area had been a little skewed by my background and The Wire (and the nightly news). We did, however, see a broken down limousine which had clearly been on fire a few minutes earlier proving that limousines and cruise ships have fallen just below riding a skittish elephant on the list of safest forms of travel.

All in all it was a good day and I can assure you that my first trip to Preakness will not be my last. (I haven't been back since and I'm not going this year). We gambled on horses, we lived among drunk people, we cheated death and we made new friends. It was like hitting the Baltimore Superfecta.    

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