Preakness infield party still raucous, but tamer than years past

There were still drunken 20-somethings. Still crowds making a ruckus. And people throwing up after one too many beers.

But this year — unlike at recent Preakness Stakes when infield crowds gained a reputation for debauchery and rowdy stunts like port-a-potty races — racegoers said the party was less out of control. The infield drew both casual fans, who came just to hang out, and well-dressed and well-heeled racing patrons — the type you usually find in the VIP tents or grandstands.

"I've never seen so many people in clothes as this year," said Cobey Dumbravo, 49, a Baltimore resident who has been attending the Preakness since the late 1970s.

For years, race organizers have been trying to strike a delicate balance between rowdy attendees and refined horse racing fans at the Preakness, the state's single largest sporting event.

After ending the bring-your-own-beer policy in 2009, alienating the younger crowd that parties in the infield, the Maryland Jockey Club appears to have won them back in recent years with quirky advertising campaigns and the $20 Mug Club, which allows unlimited beer refills.

The Jockey Club also revved up its live entertainment acts, bringing well-known names such as Bruno Mars last year and Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa this year. And Preakness organizers attracted much publicity for the race's mascot, "Kegasus," in its second year.

Attendance hit a record 121,300 this year.

Anthony Guglielmi, Baltimore police spokesman, reported one person was arrested and nine were ejected, mostly for disorderly conduct and excessive drinking. Several hundred city officers were on hand, in addition to private security. Drinking wasn't a huge problem, he said.

"It's a much classier event," Guglielmi said. "People are having a great time."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III also noticed a different atmosphere in the infield. Bealefeld, who is scheduled to step down from his position Aug. 1, has overseen security at the race for the past five years as commissioner but has worked the event for much longer.

"As a rookie cop, I was out here in the heyday, when it was real crazy," Bealefeld said. "It's like things in the city, like things in the Police Department: This event has changed and evolved over the years."

Cal Stafilatos, 36, of Baltimore upgraded his seats this year to the more expensive grandstand after about seven years in the infield. He brought his girlfriend, Alexias Ebert, 30, who was attending her first Preakness.

Even though they had nicer seats, they ventured over to the infield to check out the scene.

"The grandstand is maintained drunks, while this is crazy drunks," Ebert said as she surveyed the infield crowd.

Stafilatos recalled the scene in the infield in previous years, when people would toss beer cans into the crowd, sometimes hitting others. This year, he wanted to experience the race at a spot where the lines for alcohol are shorter and patrons get a better view of the race. Some patrons in the infield complained about long lines, some lasting up to 45 minutes.

While some VIPs ventured into the infield, especially for the music, others stuck to their pricier locations. Serious race fans spent hundreds of dollars to be in VIP sections, including the Turfside Terrace, where crab cakes, tenderloins, chicken and Cold Stone Creamery ice cream were served.

Even the portable toilet in that section was fancy, with a granite-like sink, where worker Christine Johnson cleaned up and attended to the women.

Johnson, who worked this weekend for $7.25 an hour — minimum wage — said she lucked out on this assignment and got what she called generous tips. One woman handed her a $20 bill, complimenting Johnson's demeanor and service.

"I'm blessed to have this position today," she said.

Michele Gugliotta, 52, of Fallston, has been attending the Preakness for the past 15 years with her husband, Brian. As a serious racing fan, Gugliotta said she has paid for better seats to get the best view of the races. This year, the couple hung out at the Turfside Terrace, just a few steps away from the infield.

While Gugliotta has seen the infield party get out of control in the past, she has seen a difference the past few years.

"We tiptoed over. I'm happy to say we safely came back," Gugliotta said jokingly. "I think the infield is a great place. It's safe and fun to go over."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.



Recommended on Baltimore Sun