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Sunday, May 22, 2011
Updated: May 23, 11:07 AM ET
An inside look at the Preakness Stakes

By Mitch Goldich

BALTIMORE -- The Preakness Stakes is more than just the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. As the thoroughbreds sprint around the dirt track of Pimlico Race Course, they also circle the best tailgate in America.

Post time for the famous race isn't until after 6 p.m., but InfieldFEST gates open at 8 a.m. There is plenty to occupy fans after they cross over the track for 10 hours of partying.

These are not the same fans that fill the grandstands, carefully checking monitors and meticulously dissecting the daily racing form. Whether they're dolled up in seersucker, sundresses and extravagant headwear, or more casual in T-shirts, tank tops and throwback jerseys, those who pack the infield come to party.

Many settle in around the beach volleyball court, which this year hosted the first tournament of the newly formed National Volleyball League.

Some claim territory on the vast lawn by planting folding chairs and roping off private sections.

Others lay out blankets within view of the stages in anticipation of musical acts headlined by Bruno Mars and Train.

Still more wander through aisles of carnival games, betting windows and food and beverage lines, or seek out vantage points for an eating competition and even a bikini contest.

Preakness Fan
This Preakness fan's T-shirt says it all: At InfieldFEST, the party is the main event.

This Preakness fan's T-shirt says it all: At InfieldFEST, the party is the main event.

The first race begins at 10:45 and barely disturbs the party. Music blares and beer flows, while a small crowd gathers against a chain link fence along the back straightaway. If not for the video screens adjacent to the concert stages, most fans would be oblivious that the day's racing slate is off and running.

Some members of the infield crowd do care about the racing. Three women came all the way down from Canada to come to their second straight Preakness, and marched right to the fence that overlooks the finish line. Even they conceded, however, that the race is of secondary importance.

"We come for the party and the atmosphere," said one of them, Debbie. "The party is more fun than the race."

One group was more overt with their intentions. They traveled down from Long Island, wearing neon yellow T-shirts that read, "WAIT ... so you're saying there's a horse race here?!"

"We're here for the music and the drinking in the infield," said Alice, proudly. Her friends, some making their fifth such pilgrimage to the Preakness, care about races only when wagering on them.

As the day goes on, interest in racing does pick up. After final call, the Preakness horses enter the starting gate and fans flock to the rail for the brief chance to see them go by. After 10 hours of tailgating, most spectators catch maybe 10 seconds of the big race with their own eyes before hustling over to the video screens to see who wins.

Typically, tailgating is just a preparation for a big sporting event. But the Preakness doesn't carry the same heft as a three-hour football game -- it took less than two minutes for Shackleford to go from starting gate to finish line. So for the fans in the infield, the tailgate is actually the main event.

It's enough to keep them coming back year after year.