This week marks five years since Kegasus, the famous centaur-like mascot dubbed “Lord of the InfieldFest” last graced the infield at Pimlico – an ongoing disappointment, no doubt, to fans of the character. The party has certainly gone on without Kegasus, who was stabled at a booth in the infield during Preakness weekend, amusing partiers with his almost Shakespearean accent and extensive, mythical backstory, but the man behind the character looks back on the time with fondness.
The identity of the actor who portrayed Kegasus was something of a mystery in 2011, when the character debuted in an attempt to encourage younger fans to attend the races. Word eventually crept out about who he was, and now actor John C. Bailey is happy to confirm that yes, he wore a half-horse costume around Baltimore in 2011 and 2012.
Bailey, formerly of the American Conservatory Theater and the Lenox, Mass.-based Shakespeare and Co., got a heads-up before the 2011 edition of the Preakness that DC-based marketing company Elevation was looking for a classically-trained actor for a new promotion. Bailey said he went into the audition prepared to play it straight with a customized accent, but the marketing company asked him to draw on his improv comedy experience instead.
“Think ‘classically trained actor' and then look at the commercials on the Kegasus YouTube channel,” Bailey jokes. “But they wanted classically trained actors and if you had renaissance fair experience, all the better.
“Before I was out of there, the Elevation people were telling me everything but ‘I was absolutely the guy.'”
The accent eventually worked back into the character from time to time, of course (as John Schienman learned when he met Kegasus on an expedition for the Paulick Report in 2011).
Although out-of-state Preakness attendees may not know it, Bailey's tasks as Kegasus included a number of commercials, interviews, and promotional pub crawls in Baltimore leading up to the races. As an actor, the task of walking around in a half-horse suit and marketing a horse race to tipsy bar patrons was a challenge that could also be perilous – the costume's horse tail was ripped off in 2012, and many people were fans of grabbing the ‘beer horn' Bailey wore around his neck, which was actually filled with promotional bottle openers. It was also a unique chance to work on developing the finer points of his character, which he says were largely left up to him.
“As soon as those elevator doors open, I'm on stage,” said Bailey. “And there is no other way to play Kegasus than to thoroughly embrace a rock star mentality. After a while, from 300 feet away, people were yelling, ‘Yo, Kegasus! We love you, Kegasus!' It had to be that because if it was anything less than that, things could really have thrown me, speaking for myself as an actor if I didn't have a ready answer for something or got stuck on a fact. Rock stars don't care [how realistic it is].”
Bailey's costume was work in itself. He wore a wig for most appearances, and the horse costume was designed and custom-fitted by a Los Angeles company. The tights he wore, which composed the front legs of the centaur, included foam/rubber inserts to imitate muscled horse legs. He usually changed in a parking lot before making his way, along with a team, to the first destination. Mobility was, unsurprisingly, quite difficult.
“We would go inside the bars, and all of them had steps. Well, the front two legs are mine, but the back two legs are frozen in place so they can be a solid base for the costume,” he said. “The first costume was light enough that I could reach down underneath my horse belly and pick the thing up and walk in, but the second year, it was too heavy. I hope someone got a picture of my security [team] lifting ‘my' ass up into a bar. I hope someone, somewhere, has that picture.”
His days in the InfieldFest were much longer, and perpetuated by lots of sunscreen, Gatorade, and energy drinks.
“It was [exhausting] but I certainly don't want to wish away anything like that in the future,” he said. “[It took] definite resilience, not just physical but emotional resilience … It was the people who would pump me back up.”
The Kegasus character was initially controversial, as many perceived Pimlico and the Maryland Jockey Club as marketing the Preakness by encouraging binge drinking, but that's not how Bailey looks at it. Sure, the track wanted to increase attendance by emphasizing the party, but the introduction of Kegasus accompanied other reforms aimed at keeping racegoers safer. The MUG Club, which was a special ticket including a bottomless mug of beer, was introduced as people were prohibited from bringing in their own alcohol. The portable bathrooms were moved to discourage people from running across their rooftops. Bailey remembers that the number of arrests, ejections, and EMS runs were down the two years he worked at InfieldFest.
“The [Preakness] slogan was, ‘Be legendary' which is why they developed this legendary creature,” said Bailey. “Part of being legendary is being responsible. It is far from legendary to find oneself passed out in the middle of the track so that no one can see who wins the Preakness.”
For his part, Bailey's career seemed to blossom around the time he became Kegasus, and it usually found him cast as a convincing villain in period dramas or documentaries. He portrayed Henry Clay Frick in the Emmy-winning miniseries The Men Who Built America in 2012. Last year, he portrayed Gen. George Armstrong Custer in AMC's series The American West.
Now though, Bailey says his future as an actor is uncertain. In an unfortunate twist of irony, he injured his back during filming of The American West while riding a horse. Repetitive twisting around in the saddle for shooting scenes caused him to herniate a disc, and he simultaneously suffered gall bladder issues requiring surgery. Doctors tell him he needs additional surgery before he'll be able to take on work – as an actor, or almost anything else. Sitting up or walking for significant periods of time is difficult; Bailey recently tried his hand at driving for Uber, but as it turns out, sitting in a car for hours is about the worst thing for his injury. (He has set up a YouCaring page to help with expenses while he recovers in his home state of Oklahoma.)
And where, all this time, is Kegasus?
“He was involved in a chariot accident and has laminitis in his right front foot, but he's half Olympian so he heals a lot better than we do,” Bailey speculates. “He's in the Andes, consulting with some native medicine men and women and drinking lots of schnapps, which was never a thing for him before. Hey, people change.”
That doesn't mean Kegasus hasn't been keeping track of this year's 3-year-old crop. In fact, he has a Preakness pick.
“Me, obviously. The momentary millisecond of static that should happen about 15 yards before the finish line, that would be me crossing the finish line. Did you know I've actually run in and won every edition of the Preakness? I didn't want to confuse anyone by the fact that they couldn't see me. It's just that I run really, really fast, and my invisibility cloak keeps me from spooking the other horses as I pass them on the outside.
“My formal Preakness prediction is that me and my home slice Patch will cross the finish line before any of the other horses. Who actually wins the cup in the winner's circle? Eh. Been there, done that. Patch and I will be watching everyone else cross the wire from the Red Bull tent.”
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