Preakness: Infield party to pour unlimited refills of beer

March 20, 2010|By Sam Sessa | | Baltimore Sun reporter

Every spring for six years, Derek Lotfi joined the crowd at Pimlico Race Course's packed infield for Baltimore's biggest outdoor party. But last year, when the Maryland Jockey Club banned outside beverages, Lotfi, a 29-year-old who lives in Baltimore, stayed home.

"The whole mystique of the day was gone," he said. "It wasn't the Preakness we were used to going to."

This year, organizers are adding a dash of debauchery to the infield to lure back the thousands of lost revelers such as Lotfi. They're cutting the cost of admission and offering all-you-can-drink beer. The changes are designed to boost attendance, which dropped nearly 35,000, to about 77,000, in 2009. Despite the addition of live music, a bikini contest and volleyball game, the infield was a sparsely attended shell of its former raunchy self.

"We were boycotted by the college kids, but we still believe that was the right decision," said Mike Gathagan, spokesman for the Maryland Jockey Club. "Obviously, we took something from them last year. This is trying to give something back."

Under the new drinking policy announced Friday, patrons will be able to pay $20 for 16-ounce mugs of beer with unlimited refills. The price of admission for the infield will be $40 - $10 less than last year - and individual beers will go from $3.50 to $3. Outside food and coolers will still be allowed, but any drinks, including water, are off-limits.

"Who's to say that water is really water?" Gathagan said. "People get creative. It's a burden for security to double-check and triple-check."

The Jockey Club's new all-you-can-drink policy isn't without its critics. David Jernigan, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health who has studied alcohol issues for 24 years, said the special encourages binge drinking. A safer alternative would be to cap the deal at four or five drinks, he said.

"It's a recipe for over-consumption," he said. "An awful lot of those people are going to leave the Preakness and get into cars. ... There's a middle way to go here, and they haven't found it yet."

For decades, people have been allowed to take their own beer and wine to Preakness. In recent years, the infield's level of debauchery escalated to the point where dozens of people ran across the tops of portable toilets while spectators pelted them with full cans of beer.

Widely circulated videos of the incident, called the Running of the Urinals, tarnished the race's image and helped prompt the Jockey Club to restrict outside beverages, Gathagan said.

"If you YouTube 'Preakness,' the first thing you see is the Running of the Urinals," he said. "That's not what we wanted the Preakness to be about."

Instead, the Jockey Club wanted Preakness to be part race, part outdoor music festival. Last year, it recruited Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers ZZ Top and contemporary rock group Buckcherry to headline. This year it has booked rock group O.A.R. and Grammy Award-winning country act Zac Brown Band. A smaller stage will feature Collective Soul, Mr. Greengenes and others.

While having a well-known group such as ZZ Top was a hit, Gathagan said, he thinks Zac Brown and O.A.R. will help court a younger crowd. Most of O.A.R.'s five members grew up in Rockville, and their annual show at the Merriweather Post Pavilion draws large audiences.

"We did work hard to get two different genres and get folks now who are both climbing the charts," Gathagan said. "O.A.R.'s got a great local following, and Zac Brown went from playing honky-tonk to winning a Grammy."

Though Gathagan was leery of putting an exact number on the Jockey Club's expectations for this year's attendance, he said he would like to cut last year's losses in half.

"We knew we were going to take two steps back with the [no drinks allowed] decision," Gathagan said. "Now it's time to move forward."

After learning about the new specials, Lotfi is considering returning this year, if his friends are also willing to give the Preakness infield party another chance.

"I wouldn't be opposed to it," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.

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