BALTIMORE - Pimlico officials are trying to ride that very fine line between restoring Preakness attendance to its previous huge numbers while maintaining a decorum that is acceptable to the majority of racegoers. And there's one major variable involved in trying to resolve this dilemma: alcohol.
Last year, attendance sunk to its lowest level in 27 years when Pimlico banned fans from bringing their own alcoholic beverages into the track. The count was a stunning 77,850, down from the record high of 121,263 in 2007 and 112,222 in 2008. The 2009 figure was the lowest since 71,768 attended in the rain in 1983.
Pimlico cited the alcohol-fueled behavior that had gotten out of hand in invoking the bring-your-own ban. Over the years, the Preakness infield had become notorious for its debauchery and mayhem, with antics such as Lee Chang Ferrell running out onto the track during a 1999 race and the drunken runs atop the portable toilets in 2007 causing Pimlico tremendous embarrassment.
Clearly, infield fans rebelled against the ban last year by staying away in droves, and in an attempt to strike a reasonable compromise, Pimlico is offering a $20 all-the-beer-you-can-drink deal on top of its $40 general admission. In addition, the track has advertised heavily with an emphasis toward attracting younger fans back to the Preakness with a controversial "Get Your Preak On" campaign that some have alleged has been waged in poor taste.
Tom Chukkas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club that runs Pimlico, said the marketing campaign has been successful, at least in the aspect of drawing notice to the Preakness. What remains to be seen, he conceded, is whether the crowd count will return to previous levels while a certain degree of civility is maintained.
"It's a balancing act," Chukkas said. "It allows for a party atmosphere but leaves us in control."