On the third Saturday in May, generations of Baltimoreans marched onto the infield at Pimlico Race Course with their coolers in tow, an image that helped define the Preakness Stakes.
The Maryland Jockey Club has unveiled enhanced security plans for the 138th Preakness Stakes in the wake of recent deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon. And coolers are among the casualties.
Fans will be subject to electronic wand searches at all gates for the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes on May 17 and the Preakness on May 18. They will not be allowed to carry backpacks or duffel bags into the races and only smaller, see-through-plastic containers will be permitted. Other newly banned items include laser lights and cameras with detachable lenses or lenses longer than six inches.
“Collectively, we feel these changes will address concerns fans may have following the Boston tragedies,” said Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas. “We ask that everyone please read carefully our security procedures and policies, so that guests may enjoy Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness days in a safe and secure manner with a minimum of inconvenience.”
Chuckas said fans are also likely to notice a heightened police presence at the races.
Preakness officials, like those who run countless major sporting events across the country, scrambled to review and improve security measures after the April 15 bombings in Boston that killed three people and injured more than 200.
Chuckas said he met last week with a task force of 50 federal, state and local authorities to discuss plans for the race. Chuckas said organizers always start work on the following year’s security plan in October. But he said some of this year’s changes, such as the ban on backpacks in the infield, are “based on the tragedies in Boston.”
Security experts said the changes are warranted, even if large events can never be made impregnable. “These are deterrents,” said Charlie DeVita, a former assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service who now works as a private security consultant. “If the bad guys think you’re doing something extra, they might go somewhere else. Are they infallible? No, but you’re putting the odds more in your favor.”
DeVita said the benefits are as much to patrons’ peace of mind as to their actual safety. “This is what the people who run these events have to do,” he said. “This is the world we live in.”
Federal authorities have pinned the marathon bombings on two brothers who lived in the Boston area and allegedly transported the explosive devices to the marathon course in backpacks. One of the brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was subsequently killed in a shootout with police. The other, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is charged with using a weapon of mass destruction.
The Preakness is Baltimore’s signature annual sporting event and routinely draws crowds of more than 100,000 to Pimlico Race Course, including a record 121,309 last year. Race officials say security has long been a priority, especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But they have always shared details reluctantly other than to say they hire a private security firm, which provides hundreds of employees to search and monitor patrons.
Chuckas said the race is somewhat easier to secure than a marathon, because fans enter through fixed points, where they can be searched and checked with wands. DeVita agreed, saying: “A stadium or a racetrack is a more protected site, because you can control the access points. You can’t do that on a street corner in Boston.”
Fans can work around the bans on backpacks and duffel bags by carrying items in clear plastic bags or open beach bags, Chuckas said.
“With any change, there’s usually some backlash,” he said. “What I respectfully request is that people understand the changes are being made for a reason. … We think they will go a long way to ensuring safety and security.”
Huff Millard of Lutherville said he has attended the Preakness and doesn’t believe the infield is a likely terrorist target. “But I think this is a reasonable reaction to the bombings in Boston,” said Millard, 23. “I can understand why the event and city officials think the changes are necessary.”
He said the new restrictions wouldn’t prevent him from attending Preakness in the future.
The changes are similar to those for the Kentucky Derby, to be run May 4. Officials at Churchill Downs banned coolers, many cameras and larger purses after the Boston bombings. Backpacks and duffel bags were already barred from the Derby.
The Maryland Jockey Club faced complaints in 2009 when it banned outside beer and other canned and bottled beverages from the infield. With outside beverages and now most coolers prohibited, the infield will not look the same as it did for decades.
Heightened security will be a new reality at many Baltimore sporting events this year.
In the days after the Boston bombings, Orioles fans encountered a noticeably increased police presence at Camden Yards, with bomb-sniffing dogs pacing the park. Officials with the Baltimore Marathon and the Grand Prix of Baltimore also pledged to re-evaluate crisis plans.
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