At Troubled Preakness, a Sobering Attendance Drop

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

BALTIMORE -- The future of Maryland's storied horse racing industry might be a matter of debate, but one thing was clear yesterday at the yearly race that has been the state's biggest sports event for more than a century: The Freakness is gone.

The usually crammed infield at the Preakness Stakes, which earned that nickname because of drunken fighting and other forms of debauchery, was far from full as post time neared. Gone were the topless women, and the teens who raced and stumbled across the tops of portable toilets, pelted with beer cans as they went.

To restore civility to what had become little more than an all-day party, officials at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore banned spectators this year from bringing their own beverages, including beer, onto the infield. The move contributed to a 30 percent drop in attendance, and it drew plenty of complaints.

"I'm here, but I'm not happy," said Chad Jones, 35, a mortgage broker from Baltimore. He was among a smattering of fans on an infield that ordinarily draws 60,000.

Those who stayed home forfeited the chance to see Rachel Alexandra become the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years, holding off Kentucky Derby victor Mine That Bird by one length and Musket Man by one and 1/2 lengths.

Rachel Alexandra had drawn all the pre-race attention after her victory in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby, and she did not disappoint yesterday as she led the all-male field for almost the whole race, covering the 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.08.

Though officials said the total wagered was $59 million, up $14 million from last year, the lower attendance appeared to be the latest blow to Pimlico and the Preakness, the second race in the coveted Triple Crown.

Attendance dropped 7.5 percent last year, to 112,222, and it fell yesterday to 77,850, track officials said. A referendum legalizing slot machines in Maryland has produced no money for the state's ailing horse racing industry. And Magna Entertainment, the Canadian conglomerate that owns the Preakness, is in financial straits.

The company filed for bankruptcy in March, saying it would put Pimlico up for auction. It relented only after Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and state lawmakers threatened to seize the track by eminent domain.

O'Malley, on a tour of the stables before post time, repeated his pledge to "do everything we can" to keep the Preakness at Pimlico.

"I look forward to seeing it run for another 134 years," he said in a nod to the Preakness's first race at Pimlico, in 1873.

Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico, said he expected the ban to cut into ticket sales this year and next. Even so, he said, the infield -- a world away from the dresses and heels, linen suits and fedoras worn by some in the grandstand -- needed to change.

"We're trying to elevate the experience for everybody," he said. "Sometimes a short-term loss turns into a long-term gain."

Beer and black-eyed Susans, the event's signature drink, still could be had. But thousands of racing fans -- and fans of one of Maryland's wildest parties -- could not be consoled by a 16-ounce plastic cup of Budweiser for $3.50.

"We're missing about 30,000 people right now," said Sean Robinson, a track employee who was checking coolers to ensure that no beverages were smuggled in.

In an effort to keep the infield crowd, ZZ Top performed, and a bikini contest was held. An 8-11 a.m. breakfast bash featured $1 drafts of Bud Light.

None of that was enough to bring back Ryan Goff, 24, a Baltimore resident who works in media marketing and started one of many Facebook groups that protested the change. "What's the point of going?" someone wrote on one of the pages. "As if there's some reason to be there other than drinking and partying."

Reached by phone, Goff said, "For them to make this change was ludicrous for a struggling racetrack."

For all the criticism, the new policy also drew some new spectators. Mark Lennon, 30, who works at the University of Baltimore Law School, said he had stayed away from the infield for years because of its rowdy reputation.

"I was hesitant to come," Lennon, of Baltimore, said. "I'd like the day to be about the actual event, which is horses."

Staff writer Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company