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Preakness's marketing pitch and bottomless beers bring more controversy

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; A01

BALTIMORE -- The Maryland Jockey Club did some soul-searching after last year's prohibition on fans bringing alcohol into Pimlico Race Course resulted in a 30 percent drop in attendance at the Preakness Stakes. Trying to rein in infield debauchery while at the same time bolster attendance at its signature event, the Jockey Club's attempt at compromise has kicked up more controversy in the days before Saturday's race, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.

On one hand, patrons bound for the infield still won't be allowed to cart in beverages of any sort. On the other, for $20, they will be allowed to purchase a 16-ounce beer mug that entitles them to unlimited refills, with servers instructed to cut off anyone who has had too much.

Given that Pimlico's gates open at 8:30 a.m. and the race won't start until 6:18 p.m., the bottomless beer mugs may represent the biggest bargain in sports history or the most ill-advised. Either way, they're the perfect way to, as the event's new ad campaign suggests, "Get Your Preak On."

Although last year's attendance plunge from 112,222 to 77,850 -- the biggest one-year drop in Preakness history -- caused widespread concern, this year's public relations blitz has been as polarizing as the bring-your-own ban.

To some, such as New York Post racing columnist Ray Kerrison, the "Get Your Preak On" slogan is sexually provocative and needlessly crass -- "reducing a great, historic thoroughbred horse race to an event with sleazy overtones."

To others, such as veteran Baltimore-based sports broadcaster Scott Garceau, it's edgy and smart -- exactly the tack the horse racing industry must take to pique the interest of a younger breed of fan.

"It wasn't directed at people like me, in their 50s," Garceau says. "It was directed at college kids -- people in their 20s who maybe came [to the Preakness] and never saw a horse go around the track. I think it's good. It has created a buzz."

Tom Chuckas, president of the Jockey Club, has heard the gamut of reaction since the campaign's launch this spring.

"I have to laugh," Chuckas said, referring to the passion on both sides. "It has got a bit of edginess. It's comical. But one thing is: It attracts attention. Some like it; some don't. But everybody is talking about it."

Whether all the efforts -- infield admission has been reduced from $50 to $40, as well -- translate to more spectators won't be clear until race day.

Misguided or not, "Get Your Preak On" represents a bold effort by a troubled industry to diversify its customer base.

The issue, as Chuckas explains it, isn't simply about getting 20-somethings excited about thoroughbred racing. It's about getting a broader spectrum of spectators -- younger, to be sure, as well as a greater percentage of women -- interested in coming to the track.

Whether they are drawn by the racing itself is immaterial.

"The racing model that has been in place over the last 30 years is becoming less and less viable, to the point of not being viable," Chuckas said. "Racing can be the centerpiece of what we do, absolutely! But these facilities have to become more multifaceted. They have to have other activities in them so when people come out, they can enjoy the races, but there has to be other things to interest them during the afternoon."

To that end, among the infield offerings Saturday: Performances by the Zac Brown Band and O.A.R.; a bikini contest; a women's beach volleyball doubles tournament; and $1 draft beers for those who don't want to spring for the $20 "Mug Club" and the endless refills that come with it.

To promote all this, the Jockey Club hired the Washington-based advertising agency, Elevation, to develop a campaign to rebut the notion that all the fun had been stripped from the Preakness.

The signature slogan was heavily touted through grass-roots marketing. In one example, the agency hired a bugler and an actor posing as a jockey to burst into Baltimore bars, announce themselves with a "Call to Party" and read an invitation to "Get Your Preak On" in the Pimlico infield.

The slogan was also plastered on billboards throughout the city -- one, not exactly geared to the 20-something demographic, features the face of a graying, balding man and the phrase, "I'm 84 And Can Still Get My Preak On."

Asked about the allusion, Chuckas says the phrase is deliberately open to interpretation.

"For me, to 'get my Preak on' might be sitting in the dining room having a glass of wine and a nice meal," Chuckas said. "For somebody else it might be staying at home and watching the race on TV. Or for someone else, it's listening to O.A.R. and Zac Brown in the infield. It's personal choice."

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