This Saturday, thousands of spectators will crowd Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course to watch the Preakness Stakes. This second leg of the Triple Crown has never been quite as famous as the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes, but if anything, you’ve probably heard of its hard-partying reputation. In 2009, the Maryland Jockey Club banned the event’s longtime BYOB policy after videos of wild revelers went viral. Even under the new regulations, the Preakness parties have managed to stay rowdy -- just check out “Kegasus” -- but they weren’t always that way. For much of its history, the Preakness hosted the kind of uppercrust, waspy parties you’d expect at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
At the first-ever Preakness Stakes in 1873, the main source of entertainment was Itzel’s Fifth Regiment Band, which played selections from Verdi operas for the crowds. But attendees soon began dining, drinking, and socializing at the Old Clubhouse, a yellow Victorian building with white trim and a wrap-around porch. Although there was no formal dress code, you wouldn’t dare show your face at the Old Clubhouse without a sport coat (for gents) or ornate hat and dress (for ladies). Patrons had to reserve tables for Preakness day months in advance, and only VIPs could snag a coveted spot on the porch. Luncheons would continue at the Old Clubhouse for several decades, until a fire took out the building in 1966.
But the Old Clubhouse wasn’t the only ritzy aspect of Preakness parties. The Preakness Ball launched in 1936 at Baltimore’s Fifth Regiment Armory, and it was quite the swanky scene. As The Baltimore Sun recounts, guests were “greeted by two bands, a throne, a ceiling covered with ‘hundreds of yards’ of pastel blue material, and a dance floor enclosed by a rail similar to the one at Pimlico.” That throne, by the way, was reserved for the “Queen of the Preakness,” who was crowned with an entire court of princesses and duchesses around midnight.
In subsequent years, this ball moved to the grand ballroom of the Lord Baltimore Hotel. Classic crooners like Cab Calloway would entertain the socialites, but by the ‘60s, the gala was already showing a wild streak. In 1961, a stripper named Blaze Starr appeared as the “Spirit of Preakness” by swinging from the ceiling in a G-string decorated with black-eyed Susans, the state’s official flower, as a Dixieland band played. Starr even floated petals to the guests below her, who scrambled for them like bridesmaids at a bouquet toss.
It’s unclear exactly when the Preakness Ball ended, but the festivities at the Pimlico infield soon became the main attraction. Spectators showed up early to picnic and drink -- and since there were no restrictions at the time, they came with heavy provisions. Photos from 1975 show men hauling trashcans (presumably) full of alcohol and in 1986, no one was batting an eye at friends moving an actual couch loaded with coolers and tubs.
These informal infield celebrations got drastically out of hand by the time the new millennium rolled around. At that point, beer-fueled slip ‘n slides and hollowed-out “horse beer bongs” were the norm. But it wasn’t until the infamous “running of the urinals” hit the Internet that officials intervened. Starting in 2007, brave, boozed-up individuals climbed atop rows of Porta-Potties and made a mad dash straight across as onlookers whipped beer cans at them. (Some foolhardy runners even tried to jump between the rows, to disastrous results.) Videos of the stunt spread across the web over the next two years, and it put the event organizers under a bit of scrutiny. This led to the 2009 ban on outside beverages, which proved to be a risky move on the Maryland Jockey Club’s part. That year, attendance dropped from 112,222 disorderly guests to 77,850 miserly attendees.
To combat the dwindling numbers, the Preakness organizers offered $20 bottomless beer mugs the next year. In 2011, they added fratty elements like the Kegasus mascot and a bikini contest to further entice young people, who were promised “a 10-hour party to celebrate a two-minute race.” Some derided the marketing spin as crass, but it worked: attendance once again shot past the 100k mark, topping at 131,680 in 2015.
This year’s revelries remain to be seen, but if the bands and bikini contest booked for the Jägermeister Stage are any indication, the days of society balls and clubhouse luncheons are fixed firmly in the rearview mirror. The Queen of the Preakness is dead, long live Kegasus.
Feature image via Wikicommons