Every April, camera crews from ABC's "Wide World of Sports" would turn up on the horse farms a few miles from where I grew up for the annual running of the Maryland Hunt Cup, part of the spring steeplechase horse racing series that graces Maryland's equestrian country from Monkton to Glyndon and beyond each spring.
Portrayed as a grand tradition of what I call the lockjaw set (people of inherited means who talk in low growls though their back teeth have been soldered together), the event never failed to draw a substantial crowd of local commoners. It was definitely not a day to plan a trip from Reisterstown to the then-new Hunt Valley Mall. The whole Worthington Valley was packed with cars parked on every square of shoulder and stuck in just about every ditch.
Though I never attended — my parents were wise to what was going on —a lot of the kids I hung around with did. An attraction in those days that was more of a draw for a lot of people than the races was the easy access to alcohol. My understanding is that the junior booze-fest atmosphere was reined in to a large degree in the years after the drinking age was restored to 21 from 18, and on those rare occasions when I've found myself driving to my parents house in late April, I've noticed the parking situation has improved substantially.
It's my understanding from the folks I know who still attend the event after all these years that, while many a glass (Actually plastic cup. Nothing says party these days like red plastic cup.) is lifted on race day, the Bacchanalia I associated with the goings on in my youth is largely gone.
All the same, the opening of the Maryland horse season this spring set me to thinking about the relationship between horse racing and that great social lubricant, ethyl alcohol and its many forms. In the 136 times the Preakness Stakes has been run here in my home state, I've attended exactly one time. The local rock band the Ravyns — whose hit "Raised on the Radio" was in the charts thanks to its being on the soundtrack of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — was a headline act at the infield. The forecast was for intermittent showers throughout the day, but it was expected the show would go on.
It was certainly a show, but not the one I had hoped to see. The Ravyns played three or four songs before the sky opened up and all electronic equipment had to be shut down and put away. The show that went on after that involved hundreds of people, many of them wearing shirts that said something to the effect of "I went to the Preakness Infield and never saw a horse" rolling around in a huge mud bog disturbingly close to a line of portable toilets. Enough said.
Flash forward to the more recent incarnations of the so called Preakness Infield Party and its semi-official mascot, a centaur (half man half horse) named Kegasus. It seems all pretense of horse racing being the sport of kings and the Preakness a highlight of the elite social calendar has long since been tossed aside in favor of a flashback to the most base of the ancient Greco-Roman festivals at the local hippodrome.
At the risk of falling on the "too loud" side of the Ozzy Osbourne rule, "If it's too loud, you're too old," I'll postulate that it's a real shame equine enthusiasts haven't yet been able to strike more of a balance in mixing a few social drinks with some polite wagering on favorite horses, jockeys, trainers or farms (or even just favorite colors of silks).
There absolutely is a difference between swilling so much beer that standing up and speaking clearly are insurmountable challenges and raising a glass (or red plastic cup) and chirping a toast.
If horse racing is ever to regain any semblance of general popularity beyond a few races in the spring, it has to get beyond being an excuse for young people to over-indulge in a keg party, as much as it has to get beyond the day-to-day image of being the realm of cigar-chomping old men wearing polyester, as they peruse their racing forms and line up at the mutuel tellers.
Horse racing does have the drawback of being a few minutes of excitement packed into a day's slate of races; then again, baseball has a comparable drawback and still manages to draw crowds. And, the ballpark offers ample opportunity to enjoy a cold cup of beer, even as fans and ballpark staff are generally intolerant of obnoxious drunkenness.
A big day in the equestrian season is fast approaching, as May 5 brings the Kentucky Derby (for those of us in Maryland, the warmup race for the Preakness). It would be an ideal day to raise a tumbler of bourbon, mint and simple syrup (traditional drink of the Derby) in a toast looking forward to an era of more civilized enjoyment of the Sport of Kings.