As Preakness 2013 arrives, infield shows identity shift from drink-a-thon to music festival

PREAKNESS 2013

Now in its fifth year, 'Infieldfest' has quickly — and significantly — changed the culture at Preakness

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May 14, 2013|By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

In 2008, Ed DeRosa witnessed the infamy of the Preakness infield — the passed-out partiers, the chucking of full beer cans into crowds and of course, the "Running of the Urinals," where drunken infielders ran down a row of portable toilets. DeRosa, a horse-racing reporter from Lexington, Ky., who attended Preakness from 2005 to 2011, says nothing could have prepared a first-timer for the debauchery.

"I was in Vegas for New Year's Eve a couple times, and until I had been to the Preakness infield, that was the craziest I'd ever seen people behave," DeRosa, now 33, said. "Preakness was another level of human behavior. I remember telling friends back here, 'You had to see it to believe it.'"

For Preakness organizers, it was the tipping point. The Maryland Jockey Club announced the 2009 Preakness would no longer allow attendees to haul their own alcohol to the infield — a controversial policy that put an end to the decades-long tradition of infield partiers bringing their own beer and wine. It drew heavy criticism from attendees, with some predicting the ban would be the downfall of the infield and Preakness altogether.

Five years later, the Preakness infield is as popular as it's been in decades, with "Infieldfest" ticket sales up 9 percent compared with this point last year, said Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas. He and others credit the success to changing the infield's culture from free-for-all drink-a-thon to something resembling an outdoor music festival with of-the-moment talent.

"It's still the people's party, but it's a different kind of party," Chuckas said.

He said sales are up this year, at least partially because of the success of last year's event, which was headlined by pop-rock act Maroon 5 and rapper Wiz Khalifa. Attendance for Preakness as a whole last year was up 13 percent to 121,309, the highest it had been since the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development began recording attendance figures in 1987.

There were bumps along the way. In 2009, the first year without B.Y.O.B., attendance plummeted to 77,850 from 2008's 112,222, according to the report. After that year's disappointing event, which included performances from mainstream rock acts ZZ Top and Buckcherry, Chuckas recalls members of the media predicting he'd reinstate the old alcohol policy.

"I said, 'No, I'm not. If you give me two or three years, we'll be OK,'" Chuckas recalled.

One year may have been enough for the Maryland Jockey Club to find its footing. In 2010, when O.A.R. and Zac Brown Band headlined, attendance climbed to 95,760. In 2011, the lineup shifted from rock to pop (hitmakers Bruno Mars and Train headlined) and attendance reached 107,398.

The rise in attendance has led to more money being spent in the area, officials say. The economic impact of last year's Preakness was close to $35 million, according to Jim Palma, a senior manager in the research and information unit of the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development. In 2008, the event's impact was $23.6 million, and it dipped to $19.2 million in 2009, when B.Y.O.B. was banned. (It should be noted, however, that calculation methods changed in 2011.)

By comparison, the Baltimore Grand Prix's economic impact was just under $25 million last year, according to reports.

Besides attendance increasing, Chuckas has noticed a demographic shift in the infield since 2009. It's changed from a college-aged group that "basically didn't want to spend any money" to a slightly older crowd he describes as "upscale."

When DeRosa was last at Preakness, in 2011, he says, it was still a party atmosphere — but the infield had a more subdued and mature crowd than the 2008 version.

"With maturity comes responsible decisions," DeRosa said. "To me, it seemed like a crowd was there to have a good time without necessarily going overboard."

The tamer infield also meant fewer arrests. Last year, Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told The Sun the Preakness was "a much classier event." He reported that one person was arrested and nine were ejected, primarily for excessive drinking and disorderly conduct. In 2008, 126 people were ejected and six were arrested, including two for assault, according to a previous Sun report.

Nowadays, "It's people that want to have a good time," Chuckas said. "They're there to watch the races, listen to music or have a social event with their friends. That's a far cry from 2008."

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