Back in April, my colleague asked if I knew about “Freakness.” I did not, but I figured it was a Preakness Stakes for the weird horses—the anti-prom of horse racing, counterprogramming the stuffy Triple Crown. That guess was incorrect. “Freakness,” my colleague explained, is the “Infield Fest at Preakness, held for Maryland drunks.” He described a once-annual “running of the urinals”—in which grown men traversed the roofs of portable toilets while onlookers chucked beers at their heads—plus a friendly centaur mascot called “Kegasus.” “I’ve met him,” my colleague said. “Freakness is absolutely bonkers. I’ll see about getting us press passes.”
This colleague, Andrew Beaujon, had not been to Freakness in 12 years, and Kegasus retired ten years ago. I read a story Andrew worked on in 2011, in which—beginning before 9 AM—Marylanders and Marylanders in spirit passed many hours imbibing and carousing and vomiting and blacking out, telling reporters such things as “[I plan to spend my day] drinking and hopefully looking at titties” and calling the infield “morally devoid.” A reporter got spit on, a security guard hit on revelers, at least one ambulance came, and someone brought a “Preakness Puke Bucket” along with a cooler. So when Andrew and I arrived at Pimlico Race Course around 10 AM on Preakness day, I figured that shit was about to go down.
But when we pass through the dark concrete tunnel under the racetrack and into the grassy infield, the scene is sleepy. No revelers are yet on the porch of Bulleit Bourbon’s pretend log cabin, despite the free samples of spiked Arnold Palmers. In vain, bleary-eyed Navy recruiters watch over a pull-up bar, waiting for muscular bros to come show off. The infield’s expanse of pillowy grass is oddly untrod by masses of stumbling feet. Andrew seems perplexed as to why.
To investigate, we pop over to the hopping-est place in the infield: the Old Bay tent, which Marylanders are swarming for merch. I’m looking for the Old Bay mascot—some godforsaken intern who dances on TikTok inside a giant plush Old Bay can—and I ask an Old Bay representative where it is. She says that the mascot will not be coming today. “People are gonna get drunk,” she explains, “and we have to protect our employees.” That’s good; if they’re worried about the mascot’s life and limb, then the madness must still be to come.
The best bet for drunk sightings seems to be the Mug Club tent. Mug Club is a program in which Preakness attendees—in exchange for an amount of money few people we interviewed could exactly recall—spend the day draining unlimited 20-ounce plastic mugs of beer. This beer is poured inside a large tent, which is staffed by 43 souls in black Preakness polos manning oodles and oodles of kegs. There is a red side and a blue side of the tent. The staffers cheer for every entrant, then celebrate each one who chooses their taps. How can people maintain that kind of energy all day? we ask a guard at one side of the tent. “That’s why they’re giving them beer,” she replies.
It’s around 11 AM that Andrew and I, posted up by the exit, alight on a young gentleman in a crisp striped shirt emerging from the tent with an overflowing mug. I’m going to chug it, he announces to his friends as he loops back towards the entrance. Within 50 seconds, he’s back in the tent, the employees cheering him wildly as they pour him another beer.
Outside Mug Club, we see some weird stuff. At 10:48 AM, a man exits the tent wearing an American flag tied across his shoulders like a cape. Later, an earnest young man exclaims to two women, “You guys have boobs, that’s amazing!” (N.B., he leaves Mug Club with one of them.) At one point, a man points at me and starts shouting what sounds, at first, like “gonads!” After a few bewildered moments, it registers that I’m wearing a Nationals hat. He must actually be saying “Go Nats!”
As we wait for the chaos of the infield to engulf us, Andrew and I construct a list. Among the things we expect to see today are public urination, a gaping wound, NSFW T-shirts, and someone winning money on a horse. We also hope to find the biggest hat of the day, meet an actual racehorse, and determine the most number of beers consumed at Mug Club. Most of these things we do not find, but here are a few that we do:
• The weirdest tattoo of the day goes to April Caruso of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. It’s the sneering face of Donald John Trump, flipping the bird, located just south of her butt.
• The biggest hat of the day belongs to Nicole Figliola of Annapolis; Andrew measures its diameter, which is approximately 3.5 feet. Figliola works at the Annapolis Anthropologie store, where the hat was purchased. Its original owner returned it, having found it “too big.”
• The event’s funniest Hawaiian shirt goes to Nick Coleman of Somerset, Pennsylvania. He’s wearing a print of blue-and-pink Monstera leaves, pineapples, flowers, and the Taco Bell logo. As I take his picture, his friend shouts, “Strike a pose!” and “Outstanding work, my brother!”
According to the military recruiters, “most pull-ups” goes to an unidentified “young female” who did 30. But of the people we personally encountered, the record was 22. It goes to Steven Lucase of Abingdon, a member of a duo in matching stars-and-stripes overalls, the legs snipped into short-shorts. He claims the military “liked it” when he did the pull-ups and tried to recruit him—but despite his patriotic overalls, he does not plan to enlist. (A recruiter later tells us no one can enlist at the Infield Fest booth; it’s there simply to provide information.)
The “loudest outfit” category is hotly contested, but we’re giving it to John Hennegan, of Brooklyn. He says his retina-burning yellow plastic suit and Old Bay Hawaiian shirt are an homage to his father, who was from Baltimore. Asked if he can wear this outfit anywhere else, he says no, of course not.
In the “most money won” category, we are crowning Casey and Jack Settleman of New York who have each won $20,000 so far—though their windfall was not at the Preakness but at the Derby a few weeks ago. Both are part-owners of Derby-winner Mage, via the Commonwealth racing app. “He feels smooth,” one says of getting to touch their equine piggy bank. “He’s softer than he may look.”
“Most money almost won” goes to Brennan Kraje of Middletown, Maryland, whom we find in the gambling tent sponsored by the app 1/ST Bet. He tells us, with great enthusiasm, that he just nearly won 14 grand—his horse was eight lengths up coming into the stretch, but then another one came in and beat him by a nose. “That horse paid someone $21,000,” he says, “but that’s horse racing. Life is good, so nothing matters.”
One infield phenomenon that caught our attention is the gangs of young gentlemen in matching outfits. Here are a few examples:
• These men (unrelated to the pull-up champion, though wearing identical shortalls from Amazon) are celebrating that one of them—a Londoner who now lives in Lynchburg—just got his US citizenship.
• These men are part of a bachelor party. One of them claims to have a T-shirt featuring a penis whose head is Ben Simmons. The text says “Ben Sucks.” That man identifies himself as “Ralphio Palmero” while laughing hysterically, but later tells us his real name.
Over our seven hours of Preakness, Andrew and I wander the grounds of the infield. The clouds burn off, the crowds (somewhat) fill in, various DJs spin the hits of 2003 from a small stage in the back. The horses run every half hour—some are victorious, but one dies a horrific death after snapping its ankle, an image I still can’t scrub from my brain, despite drinking a free Bulleit Arnold Palmer, two tequila cocktails, and two glasses of rosé. Throughout the day, we repeatedly encounter the same gregarious gang of kindly, drunken bros—one of whom I attempt to sunscreen, concerned about the rosy tint of his fresh young skin.
Andrew and I try a VR horse-racing experience, and we accumulate a hefty sack of swag: horse-betting hats and sunglasses, Old Bay koozies, a US Navy water bottle, a Bulleit Bourbon pin. We see outrageous outfits (shamrock-patterned pants, a blue sparkly hat that looks like disco Cookie Monster). But we see nothing resembling the Freakness of yore—no nudity, no chucking of beers, no Kegasus, nobody passed out. There’s not a single gaping wound. No fights break out. No ambulances arrive. It’s a civilized experience. The Old Bay mascot would have been fine.
So, where has the old Freakness gone? Why aren’t there more boobs and beers? We ask around, and it’s Lee Freeman Jr.—a Baltimorean in yellow Preakness socks and a Maryland flag shirt—who explains. Back in the day, he says, the infield was lawless. “I had a rule called ‘twelve by twelve’: By noon I’d see twelve girls flashing.” Apparently, people would bring couches and coolers and tents.
What ruined things, he claims, was one unfortunate event. On his phone, Freeman pulls up a YouTube video from 2008—it’s a man running the urinals and getting hit square in the face with a beer can. “During that whole Jersey Shore timeframe, you had a bunch of meatheads doing dumb shit who fucked it up for everyone,” Freeman complains. “Then the lawyers said ‘we aren’t going to allow that anymore,’ and instead of not putting the urinals together, they took away the beer.”
By this, Freeman means that the infield canceled BYOB, which sent attendance down drastically. Then, after a couple paltry years, Preakness apparently tried to reverse thrust by booking bigger bands and creating Mug Club, which Freeman refuses to support. “They water the beer down with seltzer,” he alleges, and I tell him that, if true (it is not, we are assured), that would probably be smart. “That’s not smart,” he shrieks. “It’s a lie!”
A group of older guys in Maryland flag shirts back up many of Freeman’s memories. In the infield’s heyday, one of them recalls, people brought refrigerator boxes to pee in. He says their friend used to fly an Irish flag, which would “bring every Irish drunk over here asking for free beer.” “Lots of children have been conceived here,” he adds. (“Any of yours?” Andrew asks, and he says no.) But he, too, claims that when the lawyers killed BYOB, things got woefully tame. “After the first year they did that, this place was empty,” he says. It seems to have only partly refilled.
That conversation is when I get it: This—what we’re witnessing—is the event. The sunburns might get deeper, the wobbling perhaps less subtle, but the infield won’t get much rowdier as the evening drags on. “We came for Freakness but instead we found Preakness,” Andrew says without remorse. For a moment, we stand on the lawn, bopping our heads to the DJ set, soaking in the vitamin D. Then we head out—before the main race, before the Bruno Mars show, before the rain.