Pimlico blackout mystifies BGE, racecourse officials Two groups to meet this week to prevent repeat power outage; Fans called 'heroes' of day

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Officials at Pimlico Race Course and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. remained mystified yesterday as to the cause of the power outage that marred Saturday's running of the 123rd Preakness Stakes.

As track officials continued to assess the financial and intangible damage done by the outage, they said they would meet with BGE officials this week to search for ways to avoid a repeat of Saturday's crippling electrical malfunction.

"I want to understand exactly why this happened and whether BGE can do anything to minimize the likelihood of it happening again," said Joseph A. De Francis, majority owner of Pimlico and Laurel Park. Track officials are weighing options for avoiding future problems -- including the possibility of a parallel electric supply system that would cost millions of dollars.

Johnny Magwood, manager of the customer operations department for BGE, said a review of the track's electric systems might provide answers to why a transformer serving Pimlico's grandstand blew, causing the outage. "We'll come out with some lessons learned," he said.

BGE officials want to know more about a large circuit breaker that was tripped inside the track Saturday morning, about five hours before the power went out, Magwood said. A Pimlico official said that particular problem was caused by a faulty air-conditioning unit, but that it did not cause the outage.

Meanwhile, city fire officials said they will investigate any possible code violations at Pimlico, where some stairwells were plunged into darkness while the electricity was out.

The outage occurred shortly after 1 p.m. as 91,222 people, a record for the Preakness, jammed the 128-year-old racetrack. Until the races -- including the Preakness, Maryland's premier sporting event -- concluded after 6 p.m., many lights were out, mutuel machines down and air conditioners off. Temperatures soared to 92 degrees.

"In that kind of a situation, where it was dark, where it was hot, where the air was sweltering, if people had started to panic or become unruly, it could have created an atmosphere that resulted in serious injury," De Francis said yesterday.

"The thing we were smiling most about last night -- after what was the most horrendous day from a business perspective you can imagine -- was how well the fans behaved. They were the true heroes of the day."

Pimlico took out an advertisement, scheduled to run in today's editions of The Sun, thanking fans for their patience.

De Francis estimated that the track lost $2 million to $2.5 million in wagers. That translates into a loss in proceeds to ownership of about $200,000, he said.

Plus, De Francis said, souvenir and concession sales suffered.

He said he had no plans to try to recover losses from the electric company. Asked whether BGE had done anything wrong, De Francis said: "Not as far as we know right now. We're still investigating."

He also said he had no insurance to cover such a loss.

Because proceeds from the Preakness go a long way toward making Pimlico and Laurel Park profitable, Saturday's Preakness day was the cruelest kind.

De Francis said Marylanders betting on Preakness day typically provide about 2 percent of the year's betting total at sites in-state. One Preakness is worth four or five other days, he said.

Asked how Saturday's losses would affect the track's bottom line long-term, De Francis said: "It's difficult to estimate right now. We know how big a hit it was in terms of dollars of handle that was lost. But the big hit is the intangible.

"Preakness Day is our one day to shine, and obviously it's a huge embarrassment to have this kind of problem. We don't know what the fallout from that will be. That's the potential for the big, big hit, and the big, big question mark."

De Francis said he feared a backlash by angry bettors who might take their business elsewhere. But yesterday, with the lights and air conditioning on, Pimlico was back to normal.

There was no live racing -- there is none the day after the Preakness -- but patrons wagered on other tracks' races being shown on television. De Francis' main concern, he said, was the fans.

"We deeply regret any inconvenience or hardship suffered by the fans because of the power outage," De Francis said. "We hope that the fans would accept our sincerest apologies for that."

Martin Azola, vice president for facilities at Pimlico, said track officials were frustrated by Saturday's problems because they seemed almost identical to a transformer malfunction that marred the opening day of their meet four years ago. After that incident, the power company designed a $35,000 switch to allow the track to receive power from an alternate source during a problem, but that switch lost power and failed yesterday, Azola said.

He said track officials are searching for a cause of the outage. "We're just all scratching our heads," he said.

Magwood, the BGE official, said a crippled transformer, located at the entrance to an area where the Preakness horses were stabled, was at the heart of the track's problems Saturday.

He said the transformer's "elbows," which connect the transformer to the underground lines that supply electricity, burned and had to be replaced. A transformer is designed to reduce the voltage of electricity delivered to a site so that it can be used by equipment at the facility.

He said problems with another transformer, servicing the track's clubhouse, were caused by the grandstand transformer. The problems at the track caused fuses to blow in other lines in the neighborhood, leaving about 500 households without power.

Magwood said BGE officials were "surprised and also devastated" by the power outage because the utility's workers had, as is custom before the Preakness, inspected the equipment and power lines leading to the track and found no problems.

He said that repairing the transformer was a tedious, time-consuming job.

He said six bucket trucks, with about a dozen BGE employees, worked Saturday to restore power. He said he knew of no way that the utility could have had sufficient back-up equipment on site to avoid a delay in service.

To better understand the reasons for the problems at Pimlico, BGE officials want to review the track's equipment, including a large circuit breaker that tripped about five hours before the power went off in the track's grandstand.

Pimlico officials called BGE about 8 a.m. Saturday to report an "internal problem" with a 1,600 amp circuit breaker serving the track's grandstand, its air-conditioning system and part of its lighting system, Magwood said.

"We don't know whether this is the culprit here, but it is part of our analysis," Magwood said.

Azola said the problem was caused by a short in an air conditioner compressor, and that the unit was turned off to eliminate the problem.

Although the outage left some areas of the track in darkness, no serious injuries were reported. Azola said that some emergency lights did not flash on because they were still receiving small amounts of power. He said track officials will modify the system to ensure that it works during partial power outages.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, spokesman for the Baltimore Fire Department, said yesterday: "We will be looking at the situation that occurred at Pimlico in terms of any code violations that may have occurred. But at this point I can't say any code violations exist."

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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