By Kevin Cowherd, The Baltimore Sun
5:57 PM EDT, May 20, 2013
The numbers alone say the 138th Preakness was a huge success.
A crowd of 117,203, the fourth largest in Preakness history, was on hand to see long-shot Oxbow's shocking win and heavy-favorite Orb's disappointing run. And the total handle for the day was a healthy $81,940,233, sixth largest in history.
But Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas still spent much of the day looking up at the skies and hoping the rain would stay away. It didn't, but it turned out he worried needlessly.
"I had some concern with the weather, that it would put a real damper on the day," Chuckas said in his "State of the Preakness" news conference Monday at Pimlico Race Course. "Obviously the work we've done with the brand and turning things around has really [had] an impact on our public and our guests, and it was just amazing. I don't think I've had a better day in the five, six years I've been here."
The enhanced security measures at the track didn't dampen the mood, either, Chuckas said. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, backpacks and duffel bags were banned from the Preakness, along with non-clear coolers and camera lenses longer than six inches.
"Most of the people I talked to were really positive about it," he said. "It didn't take them too long to get them in here. . . . Maybe it took five, 10 minutes extra. But the general message I got was: 'If this makes everybody safer, it's well worth it.'"
This was also the first year that Preakness week included infield concerts as part of Friday's Black-Eyed Susan Day festivities. Featured performers were the Goo Goo Dolls, Rodney Atkins and Rachel Farley as Pimlico officials looked for ways to lure customers to the track prior to Saturday's big race.
Chuckas said he was "happy" with the result and noted the same basic strategy was used when Preakness Infield Fest was started in 2009 and big acts such as Buckcherry and ZZ Top were brought in to perform.
"When I look at Black-Eyed Susan Day, this is about women and empowerment," he said. "We believe it's time to turn things around on Friday, expand the footprint. You've got to start somewhere. If you go back to '09 and '10 for us when we did the Preakness, I look at it the same way.
". . . You can rest assured the infield will be open again next year on Friday. We'll probably expand the music and upgrade the music, and I think it's got the potential to grow. (In) 2012 we had 32,000 and change (in attendance), we almost had 40,000 this year. I'm hopeful in two or three years, I'll be up to 75,000 or 80,000 on Friday."
When Chuckas was asked if the crowds coming back to Old Hilltop the past few years indicated that Maryland racing is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, he quickly nodded.
"I think so," he said. "There are a couple of things that factor into this: the 10-year agreement that we came up with the horsemen and breeders . . . we call it peace in the valley. So everybody's working together, there's not all that in-fighting that takes energy and effort away from really doing what's right for the industry. That's a real positive.
"And the other is the Preakness has turned around. The atmosphere and the attitude people have coming in here, it's not the Wild West anymore. It's a place you want to be at, you're treated well. Those two things kind of carry us through.
". . . The industry's still got a ways to go," he added. "There's a horse shortage, that's a tough thing. We're competing with other areas (for) disposable income. So we're going to have to continue to work and do a good job. But I think we're much better off than we've been in the last five years."
One of the next priorities for Chuckas and his staff includes the renovation of both the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks with a share of the state's slots money, which could be around $112 million in matching funds if the Maryland Jockey Club agrees to shell out an equivalent sum.
While initial plans call for new barns to be built at Pimlico, the country's third oldest racetrack, Chuckas said the larger issue is what to do with the facility itself. One option is to raze the entire building and start all over.
". . . There's a huge debate, if you pick up the paper, there's a segment of the population that says 'No, no, it's got historical, traditional value, you can't do that,'" Chuckas said. "And there's other people that say: 'Start and one end of the building, start at the other and bulldoze it.'
"What our real charge is, we know there's got to be something done. The amenities have to be improved, the experience, the actual physical structure has to be improved. How to do that?"
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