Darkness at Preakness Blackout, electrical fire cause power outage at Pimlico Race Course; Infield barely affected; Track may have lost between $2 million and $2.5 million in wagers; 123rd Preakness



Yesterday's coverage of the power outage at Saturday's Preakness inadvertently left the impression that officials at Pimlico offered no apologies for inconvenience to fans.

In fact, the front-page story about the outage should have included quotes from Joseph A. De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, praising the "patience and sportsmanship of our fans the greatest fans in the country." De Francis also apologized in remarks to other news organizations.

In addition, a sports column criticizing De Francis for failing to apologize referred only to De Francis' remarks on the victory stand.

A power outage at Pimlico Race Course turned the Preakness into a steamy afternoon of darkness and frustration for thousands of racing fans yesterday, despite an exciting victory by Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

For many of the 91,122 Preakness fans, the race was overshadowed by the power outage, which left the grandstand and some clubhouse areas without electricity for most of the afternoon. The infield was barely affected. But the outage left hundreds of parimutuel windows dark through the Preakness, costing the racetrack as much as $2.5 million in lost bets.

"We want to lose some money, and we can't," said John Yale, who flew in from Phoenix, Ariz., to attend the race. The power went out at Pimlico at 1: 48 p.m. and was not fully restored until 6: 35 p.m., well after the day's final race.

The power problems were compounded by an unrelated electrical fire that spewed smoke into the lounge where jockeys dress and prepare for races.

Neither the electrical outage nor the fire caused any injuries, though one medical crew reported treating at least 50 fans for heat exhaustion and dehydration. Racetime temperature was 92 degrees, tying a record for this date, with 52 percent humidity.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials attributed the power outage to the failure of a connector that links together several transformers at the racetrack. It caused fuses to blow first at the transformer that supplies the grandstand and then at the transformers that feed the clubhouse and restaurant. Five hundred Pimlico area residents also lost electricity.

"When you have equipment failure, you can never really plan for it," said BGE spokeswoman Darcel Guy, who said the company was still investigating why the connector failed. "It certainly couldn't have happened at a worse time."

Eighty percent of power was restored to the clubhouse and restaurant by about 4 p.m., and by 4: 30 p.m., power to those areas was completely restored.

But in the grandstand, most of the power remained out through the end of the races -- leaving sweltering fans unable to bet and questioning whether it is worth returning to Pimlico next year.

"I expected a lot better than this," said John Schilling, who drove to the race from Harrisburg, Pa. "I would have been better off staying home and going to Penn National. This is very weak."

The power outage created chaos at the betting windows in the grandstand.

Some fans futilely waited at dark betting computers in hopes that power would be restored, while others lined up 40-deep at the handful of windows where bets were being accepted.

Tellers -- who reported taking in bets totaling $5,000 to $10,000 for the day in past Preakness races -- said they had received a fraction of that yesterday before the power went out.

The outage became a frustrating and embarrassing irony for track officials.

Many fans at Pimlico could see the races but could not bet them. Those at other tracks could bet into a simulcast pool but were unable to watch some because of the missing signal.

"This affects three floors of betting windows and 20,000 people," said Lenny Hale, Pimlico's vice president of racing. "It is our biggest day of the year. We don't have another Preakness until next year, and this really hurts."

Preakness weekend constitutes Pimlico's life raft for the rest of the season.

Last year, the race generated $4 million in pre-tax profits for the track and in March, racing officials had warned that the track's slim profit margins could be wiped out by a streak of bad weather or a poorly attended Preakness.

Joseph De Francis, owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park, estimated that the power outage caused a loss of $2 million to $2.5 million in wagers at Pimlico, a third of what is typically bet on Preakness day.

Last year's Preakness generated $8.5 million in bets from Pimlico, Laurel Park and the state's off-track betting sites, including $6 million from Pimlico, he said. This year, an estimated $7 million was bet statewide.

Track owners receive 9 cents of every dollar bet on Maryland races at Pimlico. So the loss of $2 million to $2.5 million in bets at Pimlico cost track owners $200,000 to $250,000.

"This kind of problem in terms of the impact on our company is very serious," said De Francis, who received a telephone call from his banker yesterday inquiring about the financial impact of the power outage.

"Thank God we were able to run the races, and to sell the races out to the rest of the country. Since that was not seriously affected, it was not catastrophic. But it's going to hurt," De Francis said.

Pimlico imports tellers from racetracks in neighboring states to work the Preakness, its crown jewel. On this day, the track paid them to sit, sweat and wait.

Gloria Kinebrew, a teller from New York, used a cigarette lighter in the darkness to see her computer terminal and let people cash in their tickets until racing officials told her to stop.

"In New York, [the fans] would have ripped the place down by now," Kinebrew said.

At the end of the Preakness race, the grandstand betting windows turned from chaos to near madhouse as fans rushed to cash in on their winnings.

"This really messed the whole day up," said Raymond Bunch from Richmond, Va., who won money on Real Quiet. "I stood in line 45 minutes to place a bet. Unfortunately, that's the way it's been all day."

Yesterday's race marked the second time this year that a major racing event has been disrupted by a power outage. The Jim Beam Handicap at Turfway Park in Ohio had to be postponed a day after a transformer fire knocked out power on March 28.

That fire happened well before the start of race card, allowing the entire program to be moved back.

The inconveniences showed no favorites at Pimlico.

Fans were initially told the problem would be resolved momentarily, but minutes stretched into hours.

Guards were told not to allow patrons to walk upstairs because stairwells were dark, and fans who needed to use restrooms were either escorted inside or used flashlights provided by the city's fire department to find their way.

Outside in the track's barn area, ABC network officials were busy making sure that the television network would have enough power to broadcast the race. The network reacted quickly to the power outage, ordering additional generators and negotiating with local affiliates for the use of equipment.

"Fortunately, we have technical people who plan for every contingency," said Mark Mandel, ABC's director of media relations. "We very rarely have to go to those contingency plans, but unfortunately, sometimes you do."

The blackout stranded at least one elevator containing two members of the Pimlico staff for about 45 minutes.

"It was just me and the elevator operator," said track official Jack Will. "It was hot in there, but there was no panic."

In the grandstand snack bar, Chi Sigma sorority raised $600 last year for a school for disabled children by selling hot dogs, soda and beer.

Yesterday, the group's soda machine did not work and sorority members feared that the hot dogs might make people sick. They ended up selling beer and $2 cups of ice water.

"This is really hurting us," said sorority member Elaine Grams. "It doesn't look like we're going to make much this year at all."

People helped each other however they could.

The mayor's wife, Dr. Pat Schmoke, rushed from the sweltering Maryland Jockey Club after learning someone had passed out in nearby Sports Palace. She checked the woman's vital signs and stayed with her until paramedics arrived.

(The woman, who was not identified, was diabetic and recovered consciousness before leaving the track.)

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke worked the phones from his table at the club, trying to find generators that would help solve the problem. "Usually it's my day to relax and stare at nice hats," he said as he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.

Not everyone in the clubhouse and grandstand struggled with the power outage.

In the box seats, a group of 40 people from Bel Air's Country Life Farm bet among themselves by writing numbers on pieces of people. "We old racetrackers know how to cope," said Joe Pons, patriarch of the family that owns the farm that was the birthplace of Cigar.

Meanwhile, most fans in the infield and corporate village barely noticed the power outage; about the only impact was the temporary loss of television coverage of some races to many corporate tents.

"So far, this hasn't affected us at all," said Donald Shepard, chairman and chief executive of Aegon USA, who enjoyed the afternoon in the Monument General Insurance Group tent.

"The power is on, the TV is on, the drinks are cold and we're still betting."

About the only corporate tent that showed the effects of the power outage was the one operated by BGE. By mid-afternoon, the area was more like a command post than a cocktail party.

For major events, BGE keeps trouble crews on the scene -- and yesterday several BGE executives joined those crews in trying to fix the troublesome transformers.

"We haven't enjoyed our party for quite a while now," admitted Lil Knipp, manager of BGE's corporate communications.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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