Darkness at Preakness Blackout, electrical fire cause power outage at Pimlico Race Course

Infield barely affected

Track may have lost between $2 million and $2.5 million in wagers

123rd Preakness

May 17, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Mary Corey, Bill Free, Alan Goldstein, Tom ++ Keyser, Ivan Penn, Debbie M. Price, Peter Schmuck and Joe Strauss contributed to this report.

Clarification

Yesterday's coverage of the power outage at Saturday's Preakness inadvertently left the impression that officials at Pimlico offered no apologies for inconvenience to fans.

In fact, the front-page story about the outage should have included quotes from Joseph A. De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, praising the "patience and sportsmanship of our fans the greatest fans in the country." De Francis also apologized in remarks to other news organizations.

In addition, a sports column criticizing De Francis for failing to apologize referred only to De Francis' remarks on the victory stand.

A power outage at Pimlico Race Course turned the Preakness into a steamy afternoon of darkness and frustration for thousands of racing fans yesterday, despite an exciting victory by Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

For many of the 91,122 Preakness fans, the race was overshadowed by the power outage, which left the grandstand and some clubhouse areas without electricity for most of the afternoon. The infield was barely affected. But the outage left hundreds of parimutuel windows dark through the Preakness, costing the racetrack as much as $2.5 million in lost bets.

"We want to lose some money, and we can't," said John Yale, who flew in from Phoenix, Ariz., to attend the race. The power went out at Pimlico at 1: 48 p.m. and was not fully restored until 6: 35 p.m., well after the day's final race.

The power problems were compounded by an unrelated electrical fire that spewed smoke into the lounge where jockeys dress and prepare for races.

Neither the electrical outage nor the fire caused any injuries, though one medical crew reported treating at least 50 fans for heat exhaustion and dehydration. Racetime temperature was 92 degrees, tying a record for this date, with 52 percent humidity.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials attributed the power outage to the failure of a connector that links together several transformers at the racetrack. It caused fuses to blow first at the transformer that supplies the grandstand and then at the transformers that feed the clubhouse and restaurant. Five hundred Pimlico area residents also lost electricity.

"When you have equipment failure, you can never really plan for it," said BGE spokeswoman Darcel Guy, who said the company was still investigating why the connector failed. "It certainly couldn't have happened at a worse time."

Eighty percent of power was restored to the clubhouse and restaurant by about 4 p.m., and by 4: 30 p.m., power to those areas was completely restored.

But in the grandstand, most of the power remained out through the end of the races -- leaving sweltering fans unable to bet and questioning whether it is worth returning to Pimlico next year.

"I expected a lot better than this," said John Schilling, who drove to the race from Harrisburg, Pa. "I would have been better off staying home and going to Penn National. This is very weak."

The power outage created chaos at the betting windows in the grandstand.

Some fans futilely waited at dark betting computers in hopes that power would be restored, while others lined up 40-deep at the handful of windows where bets were being accepted.

Tellers -- who reported taking in bets totaling $5,000 to $10,000 for the day in past Preakness races -- said they had received a fraction of that yesterday before the power went out.

The outage became a frustrating and embarrassing irony for track officials.

Many fans at Pimlico could see the races but could not bet them. Those at other tracks could bet into a simulcast pool but were unable to watch some because of the missing signal.

"This affects three floors of betting windows and 20,000 people," said Lenny Hale, Pimlico's vice president of racing. "It is our biggest day of the year. We don't have another Preakness until next year, and this really hurts."

Preakness weekend constitutes Pimlico's life raft for the rest of the season.

Last year, the race generated $4 million in pre-tax profits for the track and in March, racing officials had warned that the track's slim profit margins could be wiped out by a streak of bad weather or a poorly attended Preakness.

Joseph De Francis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, estimated that the power outage caused a loss of $2 million to $2.5 million in wagers at Pimlico, a third of what is typically bet on Preakness day.

Last year's Preakness generated $8.5 million in bets from Pimlico, Laurel Park and the state's off-track betting sites, including $6 million from Pimlico, he said. This year, an estimated $7 million was bet statewide.

Track owners receive 9 cents of every dollar bet on Maryland races at Pimlico. So the loss of $2 million to $2.5 million in bets at Pimlico cost track owners $200,000 to $250,000.

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