Flushed Out

Preakness officials take steps to put the lid down on infield hijinks like last year's `Running of the Urinals'

May 14, 2008|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun reporter

For those more caught up in infield shenanigans than the horses on the track, the big question about Saturday's 133rd running of the Preakness is whether there will be another "Running of the Urinals."

The answer: not likely.

Preakness officials say that, in an attempt to thwart a repeat of last year's impromptu event -- in which inebriated people raced across the rooftops of a long row of portable toilets while fellow revelers pelted them with open cans of beer -- the portable units at Pimlico this year have been arranged in smaller groups with more space between them.

On top of that, officials say, security staff will be on the lookout for any attempts to repeat the ritual and for any new infield hijinks that might surface.

And, inevitably -- given the mix of up to 60,000 humans, idle time and alcoholic beverages -- things do happen.

"It's a tradition," said Dwayne Yuzik, who is overseeing Preakness preparations for the Maryland Jockey Club. "Every year, they come up with something. Last year was the running of the urinals. Two years ago, it was the pole climbing. We had to shut that down, too."

In that activity, contestants shinnied up the infield flagpoles in an attempt to reach the top -- also while having beer cans thrown at them.

"None of these events are sanctioned, by any stretch of the imagination, and there's a high level of awareness to discourage them this year," added Yuzik, the MJC senior vice president and associate general manager.

Last year's rooftop run -- captured on video by a Sun photographer and viewed by tens of thousands through baltimoresun.com and on YouTube -- left participants, portable toilets and Preakness' reputation slightly battered.

Infield debauchery during the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown is hardly new -- only more likely to get caught on video -- but it does seem to become a little more outrageous every year, longtime denizens of the infield say.

Just as mud wrestling has erupted into full-fledged brawls and wet T-shirts have been replaced by no T-shirts at all, tipping toilets (almost old-fashioned by today's standards) escalated last year into trampling across the tops of them under a barrage of beer cans.

Infield celebrations have been a part of Pimlico for more than 30 years. Charles "Chick" Lang, Pimlico's general manager from 1969 through 1987, pushed the racecourse's former owners to open the event up to what he has called "the beer crowd."

"Inflatable beach balls, exposing various body parts, splashing around in the mud -- people are always going to find ways to entertain themselves," track announcer Dave Rodman said. "It's like Mardi Gras without the floats."

"Now that they've taken care of the portable toilets, I'm sure they'll think of something else," he said.

Damage to portable toilets, 600 of which were delivered and set up at Pimlico last week by a company called A Royal Flush,has apparently been increasing over the years.

United Site Services, which has provided portable toilets for Preakness in previous years, said destruction to its units has grown progressively worse.

"Last year was the worst of all," said Jim Norris, division manager at the company's Waldorf office. It was the first time he'd heard of spectators running across the tops of the portables.

"There was damage, yeah, but it's not something I had to spend too much money on," Norris said. "You expect that kind of thing when you have an infield of college kids drinking. It's just part of our business. There are plenty of other events where worse than that happens."

This year, the portable units have been placed in groups of five or fewer, with 10 to 12 feet between the groups. While that gobbles up more of the infield's real estate, Yuzik said, preventing a recurrence was "very high on our list of areas to address."

The new toilet provider says some damage is expected at large sporting events, which rank second to concerts in terms of the amount of abuse the units sustain.

"At any event with that many people, and with that much drinking, stuff like that happens," said Alex Townsend, manager of regional sales and marketing at the Washington office of A Royal Flush.

"At concerts, we get people who climb on top of them, mark them with graffiti and set them on fire. That actually happens a lot. I don't understand the fascination a lot of people have with them," Townsend said.

While providing the portable toilets for Preakness is considered a large contract, it pales in comparison to the 2,000 units the Connecticut-based company provides for the New York City Marathon.

Townsend cautioned that running along the tops of the portable toilets can destroy them by crushing their roofs and cause injury to participants.

The "Running of the Urinals" video, as it was dubbed, was shot by Sun photographer Karl Merton Ferron. It has had more views (11,561) on baltimoresun.com than any other staff-produced video. On YouTube, where the video quickly landed after the race, The Sun's versions of it have received nearly 175,000 views.

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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