The Maryland Jockey Club's new advertising/social media campaign to spark ticket sales for the infield during the 2011 Preakness has accomplished two things that heretofore seemed impossible: It found a way to connect the giant, open air frat party that is InfieldFest with the concept of horse racing. And it made last year's utterly tasteless "Get Your Preak On" campaign seem pretty good.
The theme this year is "Be Legendary," innocuous enough by itself, but truly bizarre when wrapped around the creation of a new character, Kegasus, a centaur supposedly born of Preaknesius, the made-up god of thoroughbred racing, and a diner waitress from Ellicot [sic] City named Shelly. There's a bit involving the backseat of an El Camino, but you don't really want to know the details. Billed as the Lord of the Infield and Prince of Preakness, Kegasus has the body of a horse and the torso of a sleazy, unshaven, beer-gutted man.
One can only imagine the pitch meeting at Elevation Ltd., the ad agency the Maryland Jockey Club used for the campaign, when they came up with this one. Preakness: horse race. InfieldFest: drunk people racing across the top of Porta-potties. Put them together and what do you get? Kegasus.
Besides Kegasus' half-horse body, the InfieldFest does, in fairness, make at least a small stab at turning the revelers into bettors: In addition to the bikini contest and the cornhole tournament (less dirty than it sounds), the jockey club will be holding a promotion in which lucky infield attendees can take $100 in cash or place a $1,000 bet on a horse. It's a start.
Last year's "Get Your Preak On" campaign was plenty tasteless, relying as it did on crude sexual innuendo, some of it involving the residents of a retirement home. But it was at least succinct and straightforward. Maryland Jockey Club officials were worried after the dismal attendance at the infield in 2009, the first year when they banned the long-standing bring-your-own-beer tradition, and they sought to make clear to prospective attendees that their intentions to tone things down only went so far. If the radio ads and billboards didn't do the trick, sending scantily clad women to local bars to spread the SuperPreak gospel surely did. Between that and the advent of all-you-can-drink beer for $20, infield attendance bounced back to 33,000 in 2010.
Kegasus comes at the same time that the jockey club and its corporate parents are in Annapolis pushing for the diversion of slot machine revenue set aside for capital improvements at the tracks. They say that the Pimlico and Laurel race courses are losing millions of dollars a year, the getting-on of the collective Preak last year notwithstanding, and they want that money to erase their operating losses. In exchange, they promise to run the same number of live days of racing they do now — and, in the process, to keep the Preakness alive. Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed to guarantee that subsidy for the next four years, though skeptics in the Senate and House of Delegates appear, wisely, to be scaling that back.
The House version of the legislation would limit the subsidies to three years, rather than the four the governor and racing industry want, and would limit the annual subsidy to $6 million. More importantly, it would set up state oversight over the Maryland Jockey Club's operations, would prohibit the money's use for lobbying or unusual litigation — such as the jockey club's failed efforts to stop slots at Arundel Mills Mall — and would require the industry to produce a five-year business plan that includes strategies for addressing the long-term challenges to racing.
Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas told The Daily Record this week that the industry is working on a long-term plan but that there's "nothing definitive" yet.
For better or worse, Kegasus and his Preak predecessors show that the Jockey Club can be creative when it wants to be and can successfully reach out to a broad, younger demographic at least one time a year. If the owners of Maryland's tracks took the energy they've devoted to promoting the infield and chasing slot machines to marketing their core business, who knows what they might achieve?