Despite the horses galloping with all their might just yards away, Preakness InfieldFest veteran Trevor Thomas was met with a mix of surprise and indifference each time he reminded friends of the races throughout the day.
“Most of them have no idea there’s even additional races,” the 24-year-old Federal Hill resident said of partiers at the second leg of the Triple Crown. “I don’t know a single friend who enjoys horse races.”
In recent years, the Infield at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course has felt like a standalone concert and all-day drinking party for millennials, curiously placed next to one of the biggest horse races in the world. Even before it became a mini-music festival, the Infield was a debaucherous, bring-your-own-alcohol free-for-all, where more attention was paid to people running across the roofs of Port-a-Potties than to the horses storming down the home stretch.
But entering its 10th year on Saturday, InfieldFest will see major changes designed to bridge that generational gap. In an attempt to turn concertgoers into horseracing fans, the owners of Pimlico are creating more viewing areas with better vantage points of the races, along with easier-to-find betting lounges, where ambassadors will explain placing a wager in simple terms.
It all prompts the question: Can millennials be lured to the “sport of kings”?
“We know there are a lot of Infield-goers that come because it’s certainly a rite of passage,” said Tiffani Steer, vice president of communications for the Stronach Group, which owns the race track. “But we also know that in order to cultivate a new generation of fans and a new generation for the sport, it’s important to connect that early experience with them.”
Engaging young people is an industry-wide challenge, said Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Besides big, one-day events like the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby, horseracing is struggling to attract millenials, he said. Decades earlier, the racetrack was a social hub, he said, but that is no longer the case.
“To socialize for three or four hours at a racetrack, it’s not something that people do today. They’re on their handheld devices,” Foreman said. “They’re involved in so many other things that didn’t occupy us while we were growing up.”
That includes the continued rise of betting on other sports, says Baltimore economist Anirban Basu. The CEO of Sage Policy Group also thinks a significant segment of young people view horseracing as “somewhat cruel” to the animals.
“Not only are they not interested in it as a sport, they might actually actively wish that it went away,” Basu said. He said he’s not convinced there’s enough interest in horseracing in Maryland to support both Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park.
Members of older generations are taken by the history of horse farming and horseracing, he said.
“We see horseracing as very beautiful, and raising horses on farms as a way to generate economic activity while preserving open farmland,” Basu said. “I think many young people view the industry differently, at least the thoroughbred racing part.”
Horseracing’s inability to regularly create star athletes — whether it’s the horse or the jockey — has been its “Achilles’ heel” since the ’70s, said Stephen McDaniel, a University of Maryland professor who studies sports and entertainment marketing. These days, fans of other sports feel as if they know players through constant exposure on TV and social media, but that isn’t the case with horseracing, he said.
“You have a horse that maybe has a two- to three-year window of competitive racing, and then the other athlete is the jockey, and in many cases, they’re international and not necessarily fluent in English,” McDaniel said. “So it’s really hard. How do you develop relationships with the athletes?”
A better view of the action could be a start, Preakness organizers say.
To create more race-viewing areas, the Infield has made the new “megastage” its focal point, Steer said. Concessions and bathrooms have been placed closer to the concert area to free up more space surrounding the track. In previous years, Port-a-Potties lined the course’s back rail, which made it difficult to see any action. Infield attendees had to find “small pockets” where they caught glimpses of the home stretch, Steer said, but this year, views of the race’s back stretch and finish line will be much more accessible.
“You’ll be able to see the horses running as you’re partying,” Steer said.
Improvements to Preakness this year — including the new stage and changes to the Infield, among others — cost $5 million, according to the Stronach Group. The goal was to make the Infield feel more organized and less scattered.
“It was kind of messy, to be honest with you,” Steer said. “So what we did this year was clean it up.”
Instead of the usual two stages, the InfieldFest concert — headlined by rappers Post Malone and 21 Savage, along with the electronic music duo Odesza — will take place on the megastage. Measured at 120 feet wide, 60 feet high and 40 feet deep, the stage is the largest the Infield has seen, Steer said. Organizers hired Las Vegas’ AG Production Services, which has designed stages for music festivals including Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival, to enhance lighting and the overall production, she said.
If the goal is to simply to get young people through the doors at Pimlico — and hope the races sparks their interest in the process — there are signs the Stronach Group’s approach is working.
The Infield’s Mug Club (unlimited beer) tickets are once again sold out. On Vivid Seats, a popular ticket resale website, 78 percent of this year’s Preakness orders have gone to people between the ages of 18 and 34, said Stephen Spiewak, a marketing manager for the website. In comparision only 42 percent of orders of the Kentucky Derby, which does not host music performances during the races, went to people in that age range.
“It’s pretty clear that [Preakness] is different than most horseracing events” because of the concert, Spiewak said.
Rapper Post Malone — whose “Beerbongs & Bentleys” is No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart for the second straight week — is the reason Parkville resident Andrew Hofferbert bought tickets to his first Preakness.
“My girlfriend and I had been trying to find dates in which he was going to be on tour,” said the 28-year-old, who plans to place bets and keep an eye on the races from the Infield. “We were going to go travel somewhere to see him.”
While Steer said organizers expect the overall Preakness attendance to surpass last year’s record of 140,327, convincing the Infield audience to care about horseracing is likely an uphill battle, said Ryan Clancy, a 25-year-old horseracing fan living in Federal Hill.
“I appreciate that they’re making that effort,” Clancy said. “I don’t think it’ll make that big of a difference, because you’re not going to get a bunch of extremely intoxicated people who’ve been drinking for eight hours to pay attention.”
Foreman echoed Clancy’s sentiment, adding that even a great Infield experience won’t necessarily lead to many more young fans coming back to Pimlico for races not during the Preakness.
“I’m not sure how much that experience then draws them into racing, but it’s better than nothing,” Foreman said.
Steer is much more optimistic. She said more exposure to racing will spark interest, “because once you experience an incredible day at the races, it kind of gets in your system and stays with you.”
Belinda Stronach, president and chairman of the Stronach Group, is leading the push to modernize the event because she “believes strongly that there’s a lot of hope for this,” Steer said.
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“If we didn’t think there was from a business perspective, we wouldn’t be here,” Steer said. “It’s a historic event that we know we can bring into this next generation.”