Preakness brings back the beer party without going crazy

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, May 16, 2010; C01


A Maryland tradition, long-standing but vulgar, has ended. Pimlico Race Course officials have apparently tamed the sometimes violent, often rowdy and always inebriated Saturday free-for-all that took place for years in the track's infield during the Preakness Stakes.

Last year, they ended the decades-old practice of allowing racegoers to bring all the cases of beer they wanted. Attendance plunged, costing Pimlico a bundle. This year, they encouraged a return to debauchery -- but with limits. It seems to have worked.

Sure, the crowd that packed the grassy oval drank heartily and steadily. Ten thousand paid $20 apiece for red plastic mugs that guaranteed limitless beer. Quite a few were slurring their words after downing eight or more by late afternoon.

But everybody agreed that the crowd was much more docile than in the past. Security officials said nobody attempted the notorious "Porta-Potty race," in which people were once bloodied as spectators hurled full cans and bottles of beer at individuals staggering across the top of a row of portable toilets.

Women were especially happy at the change. This year, they didn't come under pressure to flash their breasts, another feature of Preaknesses past.

Instead, the 33,200 spectators in the infield laughed, flirted and sunbathed in a relaxed, orderly atmosphere. They tossed beanbags and cheered entrants in a bikini contest. They danced to the music of the Zac Brown Band and O.A.R. Some, though not many, even watched the races.

Let's hope this was the start of a new Preakness tradition -- still pretty intoxicated, still fun, but not violent. "In the past, there were beer cans flying through the air. It was a war zone," Robert Chernow, 23, of College Park said. Now people can "get really hammered but have a good time without people getting hit."

The key was the bottomless mugs of beer, which seem to have steered a middle path just as the race organizers hoped. They offered the lure of cheap alcohol to attract a crowd, and attendance was up 23 percent.

But they also forced people to wait in line to be served. Waits ranged from 5 to 30 minutes and seem to have controlled consumption.

"They're doing a good job of keeping the in-between," said Scott Goodman, 23, of the District.

James Mack, 21, of Baltimore complained that the lines were "ridiculous," and he wished that race officials would go back to letting people bring all the beer they want. But he added: "I understand why they've done this. I got knocked out a couple of times" in the past by thrown beer bottles.

The results are a relief to the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the race. Last year, when BYOB was banned, attendance dropped by 31,000 from the preceding year. It cost the club about $1.5 million.

This year, race organizers went the other way, crafting a marketing campaign designed to signal that some rowdiness was welcome again. The slogan was "Get Your Preak On."

The campaign sparked concern that the Preakness's bad old days might return. A few fights were reported. A police sergeant said four people had passed out drunk in the portable toilets (which is still better than racing across the tops).

Compared with the past, that's a huge improvement. "From all indications, the infield is on its way back to where we want it to be," Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said.

A lot is at stake. The Preakness is the main moneymaker in Maryland horse racing. It subsidizes live horse racing at Pimlico and Laurel for the rest of the year.

The change in attitude toward women was noteworthy.

"When I was watching the band, I was on someone's shoulders, and there was no pressure to flash," said Tricia Bosnic, 23, of Eldersburg, Md.

Her friend Katie Bankard, 24, also of Eldersburg, chimed in: "In the past, people would have been throwing cans and shouting: 'Flash! Flash!' "

Only a handful seemed to miss the old days. It was "more lively" before, said George Grabes, 23, of Rockville. But his friend Margo Josephs, 21, of Baltimore, disagreed. "This is a little more safe, and I still had a very good time," she said.

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