By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Despite a ban on bring-your-own beer at Saturday's Preakness Stakes that drove away thousands of fans, Maryland racing officials said yesterday that they have no plans to restore the racetrack's infield to its traditional alcohol-doused party past.
"I don't see us going back to last year's policy," said Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas, who ordered the alcohol ban after years of fans' drunken revelry, breast-baring and races across the tops of portable toilets. "The overriding tenor of the comments was that the mood in the infield was very positive."
But with the spectator count down by a third from last year, the survival of Maryland's horse racing culture a top political concern and the future of the Preakness in question, some state leaders said the ban might have to be rethought. One idea is to allow kegs but prohibit cans, maintaining the party atmosphere but ensuring that full cans of beer cannot be thrown.
"The fundamental problem is the full [beer] cans being used as missiles," said Joe DeFrancis, who owned the track until 2007 and planned to disallow cans if he had stayed on because he was worried about them being thrown onto the track. "So, allow people to bring things in. They can have their little party and their plot of land on the infield."
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the track "has got to come up with a compromise" that preserves security but does not drive away thousands of college students. "The college kids need to know they're welcome," he said. "They can bring their beer in paper cups."
The infield party was legendary not only for its rowdiness but also its democracy: the country's only major sporting event that allowed fans to carry in their own alcohol. In previous years, about 60,000 fans crowded in, staking out their patch of grass before dawn on race day. "It was a place we could go and not have to shell out four to five bucks for a beer," said Ryan Goff, 24, a Baltimore fan who boycotted Saturday's race and organized a protest on Facebook. A 16-ounce beer was selling for $3.50 in the infield during the Preakness.
About 77,000 spectators attended this year's Preakness; last year's drew 112,000. The biggest decline was in the infield, where admission was $60.
The drop underscored concerns about the future of the track and the race.
Magna Entertainment, parent company of the Jockey Club, which owns Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness, is in bankruptcy proceedings, and Maryland horse racing has been ailing for years. The company is looking to sell its Maryland assets, which also include the Laurel Park raceway, and state officials say they are in discussions with buyers who are pledging to keep the race in the state.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) defended the infield alcohol ban, noting that although attendance plummeted, the total betting handle for Saturday's dramatic run by Rachel Alexandra -- the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years -- was up almost 18 percent.
"The increased betting indicated the people who were there had a better time," O'Malley said, noting that the shift to a more family-friendly crowd "can't happen all in the first year." He has pledged to do what he can to keep the Preakness in Maryland.
Joseph Weinberg, president of gaming and resorts for the Cordish Cos., one of a handful of potential buyers scouting Pimlico and Laurel, denounced the attendance drop as evidence that "something is wrong" with Magna's oversight of the track.
"For us, it would have been unacceptable to have a drop in attendance of that magnitude," Weinberg said. "It's an indication of not providing a product and marketing it properly."
He cited the outside beer ban as one of several "missed opportunities" and said the track needs to draw a broad demographic that includes young people and families. "You would have to think very hard about not tweaking" the beer ban, he said, giving no specifics.
Chuckas left the door open for modification, saying the ban would be reviewed in coming weeks by him and track staff as part of the annual assessment of the Preakness.