Preakness Stakes 2011: Kegasus leads the pack in drawing attention

As thoroughbred racing turns to Baltimore for the 136th Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom is the oddsmakers’ favorite to pull within one victory of becoming the first to claim the Triple Crown since 1978.

But the four-footed beast generating the most pre-race buzz is a marketing construct named Kegasus, inspired by the mythical centaur, who has been appearing in Baltimore bars and local TV ads in an effort to woo 21- to 35-year-olds to Pimlico’s notoriously raucous infield for “a truly legendary party experience.”

Half horse, half paunchy actor with disheveled mane, Kegasus represents the Maryland Jockey Club’s attempt to extend an olive branch — or, in this case, bottomless mugs of beer — to the Preakness-goers it alienated in 2009 by banning fans from carting in their own beer and alcohol to the infield.

Attendance plunged from 112,222 to 77,850 as a result of the effort to restore order to the infield, where footraces atop the rooftops of adjacent Porta-Potties had become the alcohol-fueled sport of choice.

Last year’s ad campaign, “Get Your Preak On,” partially reversed the damage. Helped by the lure of $20 mugs of beer with limitless refills, live music and a bikini contest, attendance climbed to 95,760.

Kegasus’s pitch promising “legendary times” seems to be resonating even more. With sunny skies forecast and advance ticket sales up by double digits, promoters are hoping for Saturday’s crowd to top 100,000.

But the ad campaign has proven controversial, diverting attention from the 14-horse field and testing the marketing adage that “any publicity is good publicity.”

As a modern twist on the Greek myth, save for the botched play on words (Pegasus was a horse rather than a centaur), Kegasus is thematically apt, according to Richard P. Martin, a professor of classics at Stanford.

“Centaurs are actually very wise in their way, individually,” Martin explains. “But centaurs as a group are known for going nuts when they get their hands on alcohol.”

To horse racing’s aficionados, Kegasus debases the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

Health policy experts view the campaign as irresponsible.

“The last thing we need is another cute animal spokesperson advertising heavy drinking to young people,” says David Jernigan, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who places Kegasus in the dubious company of Anheuser-Busch’s Spuds MacKenzie, the bull terrier that hawked Bud Light, and the animated Budweiser frogs who croaked the brand’s name from lily-pad perches.

“From a public health perspective, it’s short-term gain for horse racing and long-term cost for everyone else. We’re trying to rescue one industry by advertising unlimited drinking. And unlimited drinking, unfortunately, too often leads to many negative consequences.”

And to Maryland Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R), whose district includes Baltimore County, Kegasus is “demeaning and dumb,” an embarrassment to the Preakness and the state as a whole, and casts doubt on the judgment of those running Maryland’s struggling horse-racing industry.

“It appeals to the lowest common denominator,” McDonough says, “It promotes alcohol. And it insults young people by creating the impression that all of them are interested in a fraternity party and a drinking binge.”

But Harry Nye, co-owner of Maryland-based Preakness entrant Norman Asbjornson, sees no harm.

“Young people are going to be young people; at least we have them under control in one area,” says Nye. “Yes, they’re going to do stupid and foolish things, as we all have. But I don’t see anything wrong with it. It helps horse racing because it attracts young people.”

According to Tom Chuckas, president and chief executive of the Maryland Jockey Club, that was precisely the goal of Kegasus: To reach 21- to 35-year-olds, not the purists who sit in the grandstands or populate the swank corporate tents.

“Tracks have been criticized for years for doing SOS advertising — Same Old Stuff — where we appeal to the older racing aficionado and don’t do anything for the younger generation,” says Chuckas. “Kegasus speaks to them. He’s the infield mascot; he’s not the Preakness mascot. And I’m hopeful we’ll pack the infield on Preakness day. If we get 5 to 10 percent of them to come back, whether it’s at Laurel or here, we’ve done our job.”

But it’s the Preakness that truly matters — the one day out of 365 that keeps Maryland’s money-losing tracks from going under.

And that’s why it’s essential that the Maryland Jockey Club win back disgruntled fans and groom a next generation of fans.

That was the charge of Washington-based Elevation Marketing. According to Elevation’s president, Jimmy Learned, several criteria drove the development of the Kegasus campaign. First and foremost: Understanding the target audience.

“For the most part, they’re not there for the horse races,” Learned said. “Sure, they’ll watch the big race [Preakness] on the JumboTrons. But they’re there for the full day of festivities.”

Then, working with a budget of less than $500,000, they needed to create a concept that would generate water-cooler buzz and translate well to social media. (Kegasus has both a Facebook page and Twitter account.)

Given the chatter and up-tick at the box office, Learned deems it a success.

“I’m a huge fan of the pageantry of horse racing, but I think that we do need to try to bring a young audience to this wonderful sporting event,” Learned says. “Once they come, they always have a great time. Is it the majesty of the horses? The thundering races? I don’t know. But unless they lose a lot of money, I’ve never seen anybody go to a horse race and say it wasn’t a very special day.”

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