BJ Surhoff wins Crab Derby; back at Lexington Market after 5 year hiatus
Lexington Market hasn’t had a Crab Derby race since 2018; renovations and the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the beloved tradition.
On Wednesday morning it came back in full-force. Beneath clear blue skies and temperatures in the upper 70s, the people descended upon the new market plaza to cheer on their favorite local celebrities and the beloved blue crustaceans.
Bill and Nancy Devine, owners of Faidley Seafood (Nancy “the crabcake queen” is the daughter of the restaurant’s founder John Faidley), have been running the event for close to 40 years as a sort of kick–off to the Preakness festivities. The derby is exactly what it sounds like: the crabs, guided by humans, race for first place. Over the years they’ve had to experiment with a few different kinds of race tracks — after all, crabs aren’t known for running out the gate like horses.
“The things don’t walk backwards and forwards, they walk sideways like a politician,” explained Bill Devine with a laugh.
Speaking of politicians, this year City Council President Nick Mosby joined the race as a “jockey” — it's typical for six local celebrities or politicians to compete as they raise money for charity. Also racing this year were former deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah, sports radio personality Nestor Aparicio, horse jockey Eric Camacho, Lexington Market Community Engagement Coordinator Karim Amin and, of course, BJ Surhoff, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles. It was Surhoff who took home the first-place glory and the three-tiered oyster and crab studded trophy.
One could almost be forgiven for thinking this was indeed the Preakness — the hats have become nearly comparable. Nancy Faidley-Devine, 87, struts around in a large chapeau made by her daughter Dayme Hahn.
“It’s got black-eyed susans and all the colors of the Maryland flag,” said Hahn. “And a little sign says ‘Crab Derby’ on the front and ‘Faidley Seafood’ on the back.”
For Jessica Blackwell, this is just the first Derby event, which she celebrates with a modest black fascinator.
“It’s a cute little accessory. It’s not as big as my Preakness hat or what I’m going to wear on Black Eyed Susan Day but it's Derby appropriate,” she said. “The hats are going to get bigger throughout the week. They have to. They have to.”
There’s a feeling of hope and normalcy that’s been hard to find since COVID. The Crab Derby makes its comeback in Lexington Market’s new outdoor pavilion rather than the arcade where it was held in years past. Crowded stalls trade places with an open expanse of patio, a light breeze and public art; still, the location doesn’t dampen the sense of nostalgia for people like Felicia Kelly Crum, who has been coming to Crab Derby since childhood.
“It’s always been a constant with the peanuts, coming in for a hot dog and then coming out to watch the Crab Derby,” said Kelly Crum, taking note that the other beloved activities are back with the race this year. “And I just noticed that the crab eating contest is back and I'm like, I love crabs, but I don't want to be photographed [eating them] either. Because it's so messy and then to see people watch [you]!”
By noon, a large crowd has gathered around a tilted six-lane race track — it’s basically a big wooden slide. The track gets slicked down with water in preparation for the ten-legged athletes.
Mother and son duo Will and Damye Hahn, also part of the Faidley family and local seafood royalty, bring out a steel barrel with the crustaceans crawling around inside; they open their claws and cling to each other in a meager defensive move.
Some go for the big crabs, but Damye Hahn doesn’t think that’s the right strategy. “I like the small females,” she told WYPR. “They’re little, fast and feisty!”
Dayme pulls out a stick with about two feet of fishing line attached to an orange bobber at the end, like a marionette stick without the puppet. “You got a squirt bottle behind them and a bobber,” she explained to the jockeys.
“You can use that to chase it?” asked Surhoff.
“Yes, that’s what you use to get him down the lane,” said Dayme Hahn.
Surhoff took first place and coyly told the audience he will not give away his “training secrets.”
“I had a sprinter, I had the best horse,” said Surhoff. “I did a lot of looking around in the tub beforehand to see who was the best one.”
Surhoff’s crab is one of the lucky ones.
“I will not eat him, I’m allergic to shellfish. He’s a champ. He gets to live!”
Those without shellfish allergies had no time to rest. Because after the race, it was straight to the crab picking contest.