Kegasus, Lord of the Infield Fest at next month's Preakness drew animated discussion Tuesday at the monthly meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission.
Tom Cooke, president of Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association and professor at Georgetown University, started the discussion by voicing his view of the Maryland Jockey Club promoting excessive drinking at this year's Preakness.
"I know a lot about alcohol abuse," Cooke told the commission. "It leads to everything from verbal abuse to felony assault, drunk driving, spousal abuse and [more]. ... I'm calling on the commission to curtail any promotions that encourage excessive alcohol consumption at any horse-racing event."
He did not name Kegasus by name, but commissioner John McDaniel said he had "issues" last year with Pimlico's "Get Your Preak On" campaign and noted there has been a lot of "what were they thinking?" moments this year.
McDaniel said he didn't want to put MJC president and chief operating officer Tom Chuckas on the spot, but then asked him, "What were you thinking?"
Chuckas readily answered the question.
"We're trying to expand our horizons," he said. "The infield is not the same as the grandstands or the corporate tents. Last year we had 30,000 people in the infield … and according to [local police, area hospitals and EMTs] in 20 years they had never seen as [few] incidents as last year."
Chuckas pointed out that partying in the infield includes volleyball, mud bogs, food stands, lessons on wagering and countless other activities.
"It all comes down to May 21," he said. "Last year we cut off people who were drinking too much. No one believed we could handle it, but we did. The infield resonated with young people. It's one part of a marketing campaign. We are not promoting unlimited drinking. We're saying come out to a party. The people who don't like it are traditionalist and old people. And I'm telling you, if we don't get young people out here we're done."
Trainer Willie Kee, who stables his horses at the track, said he and Chuckas often disagree, but regarding Kegasus he is supportive.
"I've lived here all my life and I'm 52 now and I agree with him about this," Kee told the commission. "The infield, grandstand and corporate tents are different. With the infield, he's saying come to a party and enjoy yourself. Let loose. It's not the only thing happening that day. But you have to get young people here and how are you going to bring younger people here if there is nothing to do or see?"
Members of the commission voiced their continued concern, but the general feeling was "as long as [the drinking in the infield] is monitored closely, it's OK."
Cooke disagreed and so did harness horse owner Arthur Lisi.
"To assume we're going to build a fan base by luring them with alcohol, well, we're really selling our young people short," he said.