Note to infield: There's a horse race going on

Our view: Pimlico has proven once again that it can attract thousands of young people to the infield for Preakness

what would it take to get them to come back on any other day?

May 17, 2010

Based on the attendance, it looks like the Maryland Jockey Club's effort to step back from last year's attempt to make the Pimlico infield a tiny bit classier on Preakness day has been a tremendous financial success. The drop in attendance that accompanied the decision last year to ban spectators from bringing their own alcohol to the infield was overcome through good, old-fashioned crass marketing and oceans of all-you-can-drink beer.

Many — including The Sun's editorial page — have decried the Jockey Club's efforts to revive the infield this year through its "Get Your Preak On" marketing campaign, which, in addition to suggestive billboards, involved the race organizers sending attractive young women out to bars in skimpy tank tops to encourage ticket sales. But upon further reflection, we realize the error of our reasoning. To accuse the Jockey Club of cheapening the sport of kings would be to suggest there is some connection between the infield debauchery and the Preakness Stakes, when in fact they are merely two separate events that happen to occur in the same place at the same time. The marketing campaign steered clear of anything that might confuse the two; it was heavy on double entendre, booze and rock and roll, and noticeably short on any reference to horse racing. It's quite likely that the only race most infield-goers watched involved drunk people running on top of Porta-Potties while spectators pelted them with plastic mugs.

The officials who now run Pimlico didn't invent this tradition of a wild infield party, and given how dependent Maryland's horse racing industry is on the revenue it generates on Preakness day, it's hard to blame them for taking advantage of the fact that college kids and 20-somethings for miles around want to converge on their racecourse on the third Saturday in May, and spend bundles of money while they're there. Some 33,000 people crammed the infield on Saturday, and despite grumbling over the length of beer lines, it appeared that most were happy to get their Preak on, indeed.

It would also be unfair to heap too much blame on the Maryland Jockey Club for the fact that few of the infield denizens will ever come back to Pimlico to watch an actual horse race on any other day of the year. Maryland's horse industry is hardly unique in catering to a rapidly aging demographic of racing enthusiasts; that's the case at tracks from coast to coast.

Still, the Preakness phenomenon does give the Maryland Jockey Club an advantage over virtually every other track in the country in that it engenders warm feelings in the memories (blurry though they may be) of tens of thousands of young people who, at least once, went to the racetrack and had a great time. The trick is figuring out how to get even a tiny percentage of them to come back to actually watch (and bet on) horse races.

Night racing would be an obvious help. If the Jockey Club wants to get new people to come out to the track, it would probably help to run more races at times when people tend to go out in general. A better marketing push for other race days might help, too. The Jockey Club has proven that (for better or worse) it can effectively target young people and get them to buy tickets to Preakness. If it can create an atmosphere in at least part of the track that bridges the gap between the infield craziness and the world of hardcore racing enthusiasts, Pimlico would stand a good chance of bringing people back in a way that actually attracts them to its core product.

The new owners of the Maryland Jockey Club, MI Development and Penn National, insist that they're interested in reviving interest in horse racing, not just in pursuing the chance for slots at Maryland's tracks. Cementing some lasting connection to the thousands of people who tromped through the infield on Saturday would be a great way to do that.

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