Joe DeFrancis remembers when the Preakness was far more than a horse race, when the middle leg of racing’s Triple Crown and the days leading up to it, were the occasion for a grand parade, a 5K charity race, concerts, a hot-air balloon festival, even a mini-Preakness, with kids running around in sacks or on bouncy balls. It was a festive time everywhere around Baltimore.
“It was very extensive, everything from an event as small as the Pee Wee Preakness for the kids to things as significant as the parade,” said DeFrancis, former CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club. “I think it would be fantastic to bring back all those events.”
In addition to bringing much-needed renovations to the antiquated racetrack, renovations that would dramatically change the look and feel of Pimlico, officials with Baltimore City and the track’s owners, the Canada-based Stronach Group, hope to make the Preakness even more of an event than it already is.
The plan, which would include the redevelopment of Pimlico and improvements to Laurel Park, bears a $375.5 million price tag, most of it to be paid for by bonds issued by the Maryland Stadium Authority. Construction would take three to four years to complete, with the Preakness remaining at Pimlico the entire time.
The emphasis has been on coming up with a plan to upgrade the 149-year-old racetrack and keep the Preakness there, said Alan Rifkin a Baltimore attorney who represented Stronach during the four months of negotiations leading up to the announcement.
Specific details of how that could affect events outside the race itself, including the good time that is InfieldFest, a often-raucous festival of music, food and drink that begins early in the morning of Preakness Saturday, have yet to be worked out. But drawing even more people to Preakness-related events is definitely part of the plan.
“The question is, how do you drive the Preakness as an economic engine, greater than it already is?" Rifkin said. “We need to recognize that the Preakness is an event — it’s a festival, it’s a special and unique series of events, and not just the Preakness race itself. The thought is to expand its potential, by expanding the event through festivals and connected and related promotions.”
For most Preakness fans these days, the big celebration is InfieldFest, which attracts tens of thousands of mostly younger fans for a day of music and celebration that, in the past, could get out of hand.
What became known as “the running of urinals,” with fearless contestants sprinting across the roofs of portable toilets as people threw beer cans and other projectiles at them, gained the celebration a perhaps-unwelcome notoriety. So did a half-man, half-horse InfieldFest mascot named Kegasus — a mascot, as one might guess from the name, that did not promote sobriety or, for that matter, any sort of moderation.
Pimlico officials banned outside beverages in 2009, which calmed things down a bit, and Kegasus was gone after 2012. But InfieldFest, which still offers bottomless beer mugs for purchase in addition to a constant stream of music from local and national acts that have included Diplo, Logic, Post Malone, The Chainsmokers and Good Charlotte, remains one of Baltimore’s most indulgent all-day parties.
Maybe it would be more profitable to hold the big concerts on a different day than the Preakness itself, he added, stressing that all possibilities are under consideration.
“Is it better to have, for example, the concert on a Thursday night? And stretch it out so the facility can then be used for that purpose?” Rifkin told The Baltimore Sun during a briefing on Friday. "All of those things are being tested, modeled. But the one thing we know is: Re-imagining the Preakness as a festival that is more than a weekend, a week or a meet is really important to make the economics of all of this work for everybody.”
The idea of surrounding the Preakness with other events is nothing new; a “Preakness Week,” including a high-society ball that featured the crowning of the Queen of the Preakness, was began in 1936, and the Preakness Parade was a tradition for decades. There’s been a hot-air balloon festival leading up to the Preakness for years, most recently in Howard County.
With this new plan, the Preakness will likely remain in Baltimore forever; here are some key takeaways from the plan.
“As a kid, I remember at least a week and a half or two weeks of solid Preakness celebrations around the region,” said William H. Cole, who represented Baltimore City in the recent negotiations. “There were concerts virtually every night. Not just for the Preakness, but for Baltimore and the state, it would be great to see that again.”