Maryland Jockey Club officials couched the change in the long-standing policy as part of an overall improvement in the fan experience by also announcing yesterday that infield entertainment for this year's race on May 16 will be expanded to include a rock concert with headliner ZZ Top and a professional women's beach volleyball tournament.
Tom Chuckas, the Jockey Club's president and chief operating officer, said several factors were involved in changing the track's policy, including public safety. With the infield teeming with 60,000 partyers, the revelry, fueled by free-flowing beer, has occasionally pushed the limit. Last year, 126 people were ejected, six were arrested (two for assault) and track staff made 17 calls for medical assistance.
"We believe that … in changing the alcohol policy there is more opportunity for people who may or may not have come to this in the past to have a more pleasurable experience," Chuckas said.
Last year, the Jockey Club instituted a policy that prohibited spectators in the grandstand and clubhouse areas from bringing alcoholic beverages. Overall attendance dropped by about 9,000 fans, to 112,222, from 2007; most of that decline was in the more expensive seating areas.
"Obviously, the policy excluding beer could have a negative impact on the attendance in the infield," Chuckas said, "but what we're trying to do here is enhance the infield experience for our fans."
Chuckas said prices for this year's Preakness have not changed. Infield tickets are $50 in advance and $60 the day of the race. Seating in the grandstand and clubhouse areas ranges from $75 to $275, and standing room inside is $25.
In addition to ZZ Top, the infield concert lineup includes the hard rock band Buckcherry and a local group to be announced. The women's volleyball tournament, the initial stop on the Toyota Beach East Volleyball Tour, will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with 240 tons of sand being brought in to create an Olympic-size court. There will also be an interactive entertainment tent that will include a NASCAR driving simulator and a Guitar Hero station.
The change in the beer policy received mixed reaction from Preakness infield regulars.
Dave Kowalewski Jr., 34, has partied on the Preakness infield for the past 13 years and has even chartered buses for the daylong event. But Kowalewski, a city employee who lives in Overlea, won't be back this year; neither will his friends or family, he said.
"I'm a little upset right now," Kowalewski said. "This is our Mardi Gras. Sometimes it gets out of hand, but it's ours. ... I really think they're going to have a remarkable drop-off of fans."
The infield has regularly been the scene of heavy drinking and hard partying, but wilder moments have drawn notoriety in recent years, especially the so-called "Running of the Urinals" in 2007 and 2008. Videos of men dashing across the tops of portable toilets while others hurled what appeared to be full cans of beer at them were widely viewed on YouTube.
While some were disappointed by the change in the Preakness policy, others applauded it.
Clint Anuszewski, 30, a loan officer who lives in Pasadena, thought the raucous infield was a powder keg.
"It was getting dangerous," he said. "By 1 p.m., you had people that decided it's fun to throw these beer cans wherever - throw caution to the wind. ... With $3.50 beers, I think you'll have a lot less people throwing them."
Anuszewski thinks attendance will drop off in the next two to three years but could grow in the long run. He has been an infield regular for 16 years and will be there again this summer, he said.
"You have a lot of people that don't go because of the crowd that's there now," he said. "It will take a couple years for the word of mouth to get out and say, 'Look, man, it's not as bad as it used to be.' I think you'll start getting more people coming back."
Concert promoter Seth Hurwitz, who is responsible for putting together the infield music lineup, said the new Pimlico policy is in accord with the practice at major concerts.