Making the calls for Preakness

Eldersburg native in charge of the Pimlico fan experience

May 12, 2010|By Brent Jones, The Baltimore Sun

The wait for the antiquated and creaky elevator to reach the top floor at Pimlico Race Course can, at times, be painfully long. Sensing after about 10 seconds that this could be one of those occasions, and with an endless stream of decisions awaiting him on the ground floor, Ben Harrison, in his first year as director of facilities for the Maryland Jockey Club, made what turned out to be his easiest call of the day.

"Let's walk," Harrison said.

Within the next 30 minutes, Harrison, 37, made about a half- dozen other choices that will dictate the fan experience in the infield of Saturday's 135th Preakness Stakes. Days before the 6:15 p.m. post time, Harrison has to configure where Dumpsters go, decide how high banners can hang without obstructing television cameras and make sure the new beer tents, which will provide unlimited refills for $20, are in order.

He will make countless decisions, some big, some seemingly inconsequential, by the end of the week.

"I'm the eyes and ears of what goes on, all the physical aspects of the plan," Harrison said. "My biggest challenge is communication, keeping everybody organized and informed."

The Eldersburg native, whose ascent through the ranks was about as quick as his decision-making, said he is no stranger to major events. Harrison started as an auto mechanic nearly two decades ago before he began wiring houses. After a long stint working for his uncle's company, which provided temporary equipment and generators for events, Harrison was hired full time as an electrician in 2005 by the Maryland Jockey Club.

Two promotions later, he is essentially running the operations side of the Preakness for the first time.

"He worked his way up the ladder," said Mike Gathagan, vice president for communications for the Maryland Jockey Club.

Harrison cites a couple of nonsports-

related events he believes readied him for whatever comes Saturday.

Two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Harrison spent three days in New York, working for a plumbing supply company contracted to do work at Ground Zero. Harrison was not in charge of the operation, but he learned the art of strong decision-making and leadership.

"Those were rough times. It hit me hard," Harrison said.

About 18 months later, Harrison was at the White House, helping supply power for President George W. Bush's address telling the country of the impending war in Iraq.

Of working major events, Harrison says, "There is a get-it-done kind of attitude. The day will bring what it brings. You can plan for everything, but it's only a plan, a guideline. You have to make on-the-spot, well-thought-out decisions."

Such will be Harrison's philosophy on Saturday, when he oversees 34 acres of infield and tens of thousands more bettors in the grandstand.

Those who know him well say Harrison goes about his job in an understated yet authoritative manner. He's not one to throw his weight around or raise his voice.

If he is the coach of the hundreds who work with or under him, he comes from the Tony Dungy school of providing concise, clear directions in a relaxed way.

"He handles anything in the building — and here you have anything from running out of toilet paper to the electricity went out," said Fran Heck, Harrison's administrative assistant.

"And he's very easy to approach. I've noticed that and talked to a few people who feel comfortable with him. He doesn't have an attitude. … And nobody has really gotten to him yet. [Maryland Jockey Club CEO] Tom Chuckas trusts him with everything, and that's what counts."

Harrison said his primary concern is safety for all Saturday at Pimlico, which is why he stands by the decision the track made last year to no longer allow patrons to bring coolers of beer and other alcohol to the infield.

Attendance, though, plummeted last year, as did, some old-time infield partygoers say, the spirit of the event.

The attendance of 77,850 was the lowest in 25 years and down about one-third from 2008. To help make up for the dip, Harrison said the infield will feature an additional stage set up for rock bands. The focus will continue to shift toward organized entertainment rather than the breast-baring, beer-can flying, portable toilet-running craziness some believe made the infield increasingly dangerous with each passing year.

Although the BYOB ban remains in effect, organizers say they expect the two beer tents will be dispensing the beverage virtually nonstop. Patrons can purchase wristbands and refillable mugs for $20.

"This is a new, untested idea, and I have to come up with some sort of placement [for the tents]," Harrison said.

If it works out well, chances are the mugs will stay, a sentiment Harrison could apply to himself for all of the Preakness.

"I like it here. I like this job," said Harrison, a married father of four who lives in Sykesville. "I just want to get this one under my belt."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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