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As Preakness 2013 arrives, infield shows identity shift from drink-a-thon to music festival

In 2008, Ed DeRosa witnessed the infamy of the Preakness infield — the passed-out partiers, the chucking of full beer cans into crowds and of course, the "Running of the Urinals," where drunken infielders ran down a row of portable toilets. DeRosa, a horse-racing reporter from Lexington, Ky., who attended Preakness from 2005 to 2011, says nothing could have prepared a first-timer for the debauchery.

"I was in Vegas for New Year's Eve a couple times, and until I had been to the Preakness infield, that was the craziest I'd ever seen people behave," DeRosa, now 33, said. "Preakness was another level of human behavior. I remember telling friends back here, 'You had to see it to believe it.'"

For Preakness organizers, it was the tipping point. The Maryland Jockey Club announced the 2009 Preakness would no longer allow attendees to haul their own alcohol to the infield — a controversial policy that put an end to the decades-long tradition of infield partiers bringing their own beer and wine. It drew heavy criticism from attendees, with some predicting the ban would be the downfall of the infield and Preakness altogether.

Five years later, the Preakness infield is as popular as it's been in decades, with "Infieldfest" ticket sales up 9 percent compared with this point last year, said Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas. He and others credit the success to changing the infield's culture from free-for-all drink-a-thon to something resembling an outdoor music festival with of-the-moment talent.

"It's still the people's party, but it's a different kind of party," Chuckas said.

He said sales are up this year, at least partially because of the success of last year's event, which was headlined by pop-rock act Maroon 5 and rapper Wiz Khalifa. Attendance for Preakness as a whole last year was up 13 percent to 121,309, the highest it had been since the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development began recording attendance figures in 1987.

There were bumps along the way. In 2009, the first year without B.Y.O.B., attendance plummeted to 77,850 from 2008's 112,222, according to the report. After that year's disappointing event, which included performances from mainstream rock acts ZZ Top and Buckcherry, Chuckas recalls members of the media predicting he'd reinstate the old alcohol policy.

"I said, 'No, I'm not. If you give me two or three years, we'll be OK,'" Chuckas recalled.

One year may have been enough for the Maryland Jockey Club to find its footing. In 2010, when O.A.R. and Zac Brown Band headlined, attendance climbed to 95,760. In 2011, the lineup shifted from rock to pop (hitmakers Bruno Mars and Train headlined) and attendance reached 107,398.

The rise in attendance has led to more money being spent in the area, officials say. The economic impact of last year's Preakness was close to $35 million, according to Jim Palma, a senior manager in the research and information unit of the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development. In 2008, the event's impact was $23.6 million, and it dipped to $19.2 million in 2009, when B.Y.O.B. was banned. (It should be noted, however, that calculation methods changed in 2011.)

By comparison, the Baltimore Grand Prix's economic impact was just under $25 million last year, according to reports.

Besides attendance increasing, Chuckas has noticed a demographic shift in the infield since 2009. It's changed from a college-aged group that "basically didn't want to spend any money" to a slightly older crowd he describes as "upscale."

When DeRosa was last at Preakness, in 2011, he says, it was still a party atmosphere — but the infield had a more subdued and mature crowd than the 2008 version.

"With maturity comes responsible decisions," DeRosa said. "To me, it seemed like a crowd was there to have a good time without necessarily going overboard."

The tamer infield also meant fewer arrests. Last year, Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told The Sun the Preakness was "a much classier event." He reported that one person was arrested and nine were ejected, primarily for excessive drinking and disorderly conduct. In 2008, 126 people were ejected and six were arrested, including two for assault, according to a previous Sun report.

Nowadays, "It's people that want to have a good time," Chuckas said. "They're there to watch the races, listen to music or have a social event with their friends. That's a far cry from 2008."

The marketing for the Infieldfest post-B.Y.O.B. has seen ups and downs, too. In 2010, the advertising campaign used the phrase "Get Your Preak On" to generate buzz. The following year, Kegasus — a half-man, half-horse character in need of a gym membership — was widely panned. But now, the music has become such a draw that the Maryland Jockey Club doesn't market the event with controversial slogans or mascots. Before, Chuckas said, there was a need to catch people's attention in order to prove "that we changed for the better."

"After the last two years, specifically last year, that message is out there, so now we don't need to do that," Chuckas said. "The brand is beginning to carry the event by itself."

Paul Manna, the 24-7 Entertainment talent buyer responsible for booking national acts at various Baltimore venues, said Preakness organizers have done a great job in changing the event's reputation from its disorderly past to now. Manna, who has no affiliation with Preakness, used the terms "extremely current" and "at the top of their games" to describe this year's headliners: street-rapper-turned-marketable-pop-star Pitbull and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the independent hip-hop duo from Seattle responsible for the No. 1 hits "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us."

"The race alone is a huge attraction. You add top-tier talent like Pitbull, Macklemore and [Ryan] Lewis and Chevelle, and it takes the day's festivities to another level," Manna said. "Preakness was getting a bad rap for the amount of disorderly conduct it had [in 2008]. This is a great rebound."

DeRosa says a nostalgic part of him misses the old craziness. He's happy he saw it, but "from a common sense point of view, things needed to change."

"The downside of, God forbid, something really awful happening wasn't worth having the reputation it did," he said.

Emily Menase, a University of Maryland, College Park senior from Kensington attending Preakness for the first time this year, says she was never aware of the old infield's reputation. In fact, she and friends thought Preakness was a music festival — not the second leg of the Triple Crown. Without this year's lineup, Menase says, she and her friends wouldn't have considered attending.

"I really wanted to see Macklemore [and Ryan Lewis] when they were coming to the Maryland-Baltimore [County] campus, but getting tickets was really difficult," Menase said. "I just really want to see Macklemore."

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