Ticket sales for Saturday's 139th Preakness are running ahead of last year, as the event's past success and star power of featured musical acts allow organizers to curtail advertising.
With the spotlight on the Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome and musical headliner Lorde, Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said Monday that most seats outside the Pimlico Race Course infield are sold out, as they were last year at this time. He said sales are running about 2 percent higher than last year, when Orb, a horse with Maryland connections, won the Derby and was headed to the Preakness.
Much depends on the weather, but he estimated that at worst, the crowd would equal last year's total of 117,203, and perhaps top the all-time mark of 121,309 set in 2012.
"Success is defined by the event selling itself," said Bob Leffler, president and owner of the Leffler Agency in Baltimore, which manages ad buys for the Preakness. "This is where you really want to be."
Ticket sales have remained strong for several years, as have corporate sponsorships and bookings for the corporate tents in the Preakness Village near the infield.
That's all since Chuckas decided to bar spectators from bringing their own alcohol in hopes of curbing drunken antics in the infield. Since that "re-branding," as he called it, new corporate sponsors have appeared or raised their investments in the event, including Under Armour, Dell, Wells Fargo, Capital One, Deloitte, Longines and Finlandia.
"That's how I can tell the rebranding worked," said Chuckas, promoting the new infield as a safer place where "people can have just as good a time without the craziness."
He said he's seen the infield drawing more spectators between the ages of 25 and 40, not just those in their 20s, and expects this year there may be some parents with teenagers to see Lorde, who is only 17 years old herself.
He said customers in any section can bring their own food in clear plastic bags, but no soft drinks or alcohol, and no bottles or cans. A "Mug Club" infield ticket features a bottomless beer mug, but Chuckas said bartenders will cut people off if they think a customer has reached his or her limit.
Lorde — who won the 2014 Grammy Awards Song of the Year with "Royals" — will take the main stage at 4 p.m. and perform for about 90 minutes. She'll cap a day's entertainment on two stages that also will include the rapper Nas, electronic dance music disc jockeys Glenn Morrison and Frank Walker, country acts Eli Young Band and Sundy Best, alternative rock group Switchfoot and cover band Go Go Gadjet.
"If you go to the infield and you can't find a genre you like, you're in pretty sad shape," Chuckas said.
Concert promoter Paul Manna, owner of 24-7 Entertainment in Baltimore, said I.M.P., the Bethesda-based promoter that booked the acts for Pimlico, did a fine job the last several years booking "artists that are extremely current. Timing is everything … especially with Lorde, who is an international phenom."
Last year, he said, featured act Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, a hip-hop duo, appeared at the Preakness as they were "riding the wave" of their hit single "Thrift Shop." The timing, Manna said, was "perfect."
I.M.P. chairman Seth Hurwitz said he booked Lorde for the Preakness in March, a day after seeing her perform at a show in Washington.
The concert acts have been so strong, Leffler said, he's able to spend less cash advertising the Preakness, trading tickets that radio stations use for promotions for up to 10 times their value in ad time.
The event's success has allowed the Jockey Club to shift advertising away from the Preakness, Chuckas said. In 2012, Chuckas decided to put more emphasis on promoting Friday's Black-Eyed Susan Day, which this year includes a concert by Counting Crows and a luncheon speech by Mariel Hemingway in an event tailored to appeal to women.
The Preakness had accounted for 80 percent of the advertising, but that's down to 35 percent or 40 percent, Chuckas said, with 60 percent or 65 percent for Black-Eyed Susan Day, which last year drew nearly 40,000 people.
This year's Preakness ads have announced the event and the dates, but steered away from the "Get Your Preak On" and Kegasus gimmicks of years past. Leffler, whose agency sold but did not create those ads, said there's no longer a need to draw attention to the event that way.
Leffler gave credit for that to Chuckas, who took radical steps to change the image of the Preakness after the 2008 event, during which the drunken antics in the infield were thought to have reached a new low. Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes that May, but much of the talk about the Baltimore event focused on the spectacle of infielders scampering across the roofs of portable toilets.
In 2009, the club barred spectators from bringing their own alcohol, and attendance dropped nearly a third to 77,850. Crowds have come back steadily since, as race organizers booked nationally known musical performers in hopes of creating the feel of an outdoor festival.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun