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Preakness's marketing pitch and bottomless beers bring more controversy

The Washington Post's Andrew Beyer likes Lookin' at Lucky in this year's Preakness Stakes.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010

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.

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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.

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