Preakness 2021 Was Equal Parts Stunning, Refreshing, and Confusing

This year’s annual rite of Baltimore spring left us plenty to talk about.

In the dizzying moments after 12-to-1 longshot Rombauer won the 146th Preakness Stakes on early Saturday evening, winning trainer Michael McCarthy paused when someone asked him to describe what the sight of his horse running down the Pimlico frontstretch ahead of all the others looked like to him.

“Stunning,” he said.

It was an appropriate description. Rombauer charged to victory in the final stretch of the race, passing betting favorites Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit—the Bob Baffert-trained horse that tested positive for a steroid after winning the Kentucky Derby and was nearly excluded from the Preakness. 

McCarthy’s reaction wasn’t only telling of the race result and his first Triple Crown win as a trainer—but the entirety of the sun-splashed day in Park Heights. Roughly 10,000 fans strolled the Pimlico Race Course property, about 10 percent of the usual size, but, notably, Baffert wasn’t one of them. 

The 68-year-old Hall of Fame trainer, who has won 17 Triple Crown races in his career, said before the race he wouldn’t attend this year’s Preakness in person, as to not be a distraction amid the controversy. “Today is not about Bob Baffert,” he said.

—Photography by Corey McLaughlin

We missed his instantly recognizable silver hair, but he was right. And for the rest of us, the scale of the crowd and everything that happened in it was seemingly appropriate for a world still figuring out how to exit the pandemic.

Here’s what we mean: Ironically, the only person in the Preakness winner’s circle after the race who was wearing a mask was the skinny, long blond-haired animal rights activist who managed to evade security and crash the traditional Woodlawn Vase ceremony unfolding on live television.

“No more death races! No more death races!” the 20-year-old, Scott Gilbertson, screamed on stage, standing beside the winning hardware and just a few feet in front of Maryland governor Larry Hogan, Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott, and John and Diane Fradkin—the shocked owners of the race winner who just became $600,000 richer.

The kid made his point—and was later charged with criminal trespassing, according to the Direct Action Everywhere activist group. But the health and treatment of racehorses is a story for another day.

On Saturday, if nothing else, the 2021 version of the Preakness told us plenty about the human condition, as sports often do.

For one thing, how can someone be allowed to get so close to a state governor and the Baltimore city mayor at such a moment? To be sure, a security guard standing next to me near the scene as it unfolded said aloud, “How did he get up there?”

On another note, Saturday was the very first day that Hogan’s lift of the 14-month-long, COVID-induced statewide mask mandate went into effect. We weren’t necessarily surprised to see him in the flesh at Pimlico, strolling the open-air hospitality area wearing a suit, sunglasses, old-timey horse-racing-appropriate fedora—and nothing covering his face.

Many of the few thousand in attendance across the property opted for a similar choice. Maskless was certainly the look in the infield’s VIP tents, where Ravens players like the purple-suited Marlon Humphrey and picture-perfect former Bachelorette contestant Tyler Cameron—along with his supermodel and Instagram influencer girlfriend Camila Kendra—hung out and enjoyed the day.

The images were similar at a reimagined InfieldFest, which, yes, did happen. It took the form of an hours-long concert to seated tables of eight, which was capped at 3,000 tickets. Headliners included rapper 2 Chainz and DJ Diplo, who performed as part of EDM trio Major Lazer. (For Diplo, his maskless look also meant a Bass Pro Shops hat and a pair of camouflage Crocs, the pandemic’s preferred shoe.)

2 Chainz headlines Preakness LIVE at Preakness 146 hosted by 1/ST at Pimlico race course in Baltimore, MD. —Taylor Hill/ Getty Images
Preakness LIVE at Preakness 146 hosted by 1/ST at Pimlico race course in Baltimore, MD. —Taylor Hill/ Getty Images
Pod seating in the infield.—Photography by Corey McLaughlin

Though it was all a bit confusing—Scott said Friday that masks would still be required indoors and at many outdoor venues, like Pimlico and Camden Yards, across the city—it was refreshing to see signs that we’re on the backstretch of post-pandemic life. 

Maybe more than anything, that’s what we’ll remember from this third Saturday in May at Pimlico. 

Well, that, and the thundering sound of 10 thoroughbreds’ hooves pounding the dirt in Park Heights as they ran down the stretch—with the buzz from a smaller-than-usual crowd still palpable.