Infield crowds are back at the Preakness

Great day, unlimited beer bring crowds back

May 16, 2010|By Kevin Cowherd

OK, this is why I didn't go into marketing.

I rip Preakness officials for serving unlimited beer in the infield and rolling out this low-brow "Get Your Preak On" ad campaign.

And what happens?

The place turns into Woodstock again.

Yep, one year after Pimlico Race Course banned folks from bringing beer into the infield, causing attendance to drop by 35,000, the party was on again Saturday.

Depending on whom you talked to, about 33,200 people jammed the infield to watch pro beach volleyball and a bikini contest and listen to O.A.R. and the Zac Brown Band.

Sure, it helped that the weather was perfect: sunny, 75 degrees, none of the trademark Baltimore humidity.

But mainly what you had here was another example of a tried-and-true marketing technique: Give them free beer and they will come.

And 20 bucks for unlimited refills is about the next best thing to free.

"I think it's a great day," said smiling Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas, who was kind enough not to throw me over the rail of the press box when he saw me. "From all indications, the infield is on its way back to where we want it to be."

Sure, there were a few complaints about the new beer policy.

The lines were long — a wait of 30 minutes to get a beer wasn't uncommon. And how can you get hammered when you have to wait that long for a refill?

Another gripe was that you had to wait in one line to get your mug, then go to another line to get your beer, which didn't seem to make sense.

"Is it too late to get a refund?" a young guy named Brad Marsh asked me at one point.

Here I was, about the only guy in the entire infield who wasn't drinking. And he was asking me how to get his beer money back.

But his complaint was legit: There were too few beer stations for a crowd that size. And the lines snaked all over the place, like something you'd find at Disney World.

Marsh, 25, had just driven down in a bus from Huntington, N.Y., with 49 other people. And the other 49 were stewing in line with him, waiting apparently to, um, Get Their Preak On.

Chuckas said Preakness officials would review their beer policy in a couple of weeks to see how they can make the operation run smoother next year, which wasn't going to make Marsh and his buddies feel any better.

But at least in the two hours that I toured the infield Saturday, people seemed to be in good spirits and there were no visible signs of drunken idiots causing trouble.

On the other hand, I wasn't out there during the late afternoon, when the debauchery tends to reach its peak.

(By the way, there was at least one sighting of the notorious Running of the Urinals, in which young men dash across the tops of portable toilets. But in this case, the crowd was firing plastic mugs at him instead of full cans of beer. Oh, yeah, it was a kinder, gentler infield in that respect.)

But if you want to know why the old system of bringing your own beer to the infield didn't work, you should have talked to Doug and Peggy Spaight on Saturday.

The Reisterstown couple — he's a supervisor for Baltimore County Social Services, she's the assistant principal at Overlea High School — have been coming to the Preakness infield for 30 years.

They were there again Saturday, having a good time. But two years ago, they were almost involved in a tragedy.

As they were leaving the infield, a fistfight broke out between two groups of young guys.

One of the guys, feeling he was outmanned, decided to even the odds. He grabbed a full can of beer and threw it at one of his attackers.

That guy ducked. Peggy Spaight was behind him.

She didn't duck.

Instead, she got smacked on the side of the face. Somehow, she didn't lose an eye or suffer a gash. But she looked like she had gone 10 rounds with Floyd Mayweather.

As an extra treat, she and Doug then got to watch a half-dozen members of one group beat and stomp a kid from the other group.

"It made me scared to come back," Peggy said Saturday.

Hey, Preakness officials: Let's not bring those bad old days back.

Let's make this new beer policy work — so everyone has a good time.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.

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