Big Brown enters the starting gate at the 133rd Preakness. The Preakness favorite started from the No. 7 post. (Sun photo by Jeffrey F. Bill)
Black-eyed Susans and broad-brimmed hats, trademarks of Preakness Day, may be enduring, but another Pimlico tradition is on the way out: Infield spectators will no longer be allowed to bring their own beer and other beverages into the racetrack.
Maryland Jockey Club officials couched the change in the long-standing policy as part of an overall improvement in the fan experience by also announcing yesterday that infield entertainment for this year's race on May 16 will be expanded to include a rock concert with headliner ZZ Top and a professional women's beach volleyball tournament.
Along with banning outside beer, the new policy prohibits fans from bringing in beverages of any kind, including soft drinks and water, in cans or bottles. Food can still be brought into the infield in coolers that do not exceed specific dimensions. Sixteen-ounce beers will be sold for $3.50.
Tom Chuckas, the Jockey Club's president and chief operating officer, said several factors were involved in changing the track's policy, including public safety. With the infield teeming with 60,000 partyers, the revelry, fueled by free-flowing beer, has occasionally pushed the limit. Last year, 126 people were ejected, six were arrested (two for assault) and track staff made 17 calls for medical assistance.
"We believe that … in changing the alcohol policy there is more opportunity for people who may or may not have come to this in the past to have a more pleasurable experience," Chuckas said.
Last year, the Jockey Club instituted a policy that prohibited spectators in the grandstand and clubhouse areas from bringing alcoholic beverages. Overall attendance dropped by about 9,000 fans, to 112,222, from 2007; most of that decline was in the more expensive seating areas.
"Obviously, the policy excluding beer could have a negative impact on the attendance in the infield," Chuckas said, "but what we're trying to do here is enhance the infield experience for our fans."
Chuckas said prices for this year's Preakness have not changed. Infield tickets are $50 in advance and $60 the day of the race. Seating in the grandstand and clubhouse areas ranges from $75 to $275, and standing room inside is $25.
In addition to ZZ Top, the infield concert lineup includes the hard rock band Buckcherry and a local group to be announced. The women's volleyball tournament, the initial stop on the Toyota Beach East Volleyball Tour, will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with 240 tons of sand being brought in to create an Olympic-size court. There will also be an interactive entertainment tent that will include a NASCAR driving simulator and a Guitar Hero station.
The change in the beer policy received mixed reaction from Preakness infield regulars.
Dave Kowalewski Jr., 34, has partied on the Preakness infield for the past 13 years and has even chartered buses for the daylong event. But Kowalewski, a city employee who lives in Overlea, won't be back this year; neither will his friends or family, he said.
"I'm a little upset right now," Kowalewski said. "This is our Mardi Gras. Sometimes it gets out of hand, but it's ours. ... I really think they're going to have a remarkable drop-off of fans."
The infield has regularly been the scene of heavy drinking and hard partying, but wilder moments have drawn notoriety in recent years, especially the so-called "Running of the Urinals" in 2007 and 2008. Videos of men dashing across the tops of portable toilets while others hurled what appeared to be full cans of beer at them were widely viewed on YouTube.
While some were disappointed by the change in the Preakness policy, others applauded it.
Clint Anuszewski, 30, a loan officer who lives in Pasadena, thought the raucous infield was a powder keg.
"It was getting dangerous," he said. "By 1 p.m., you had people that decided it's fun to throw these beer cans wherever - throw caution to the wind. ... With $3.50 beers, I think you'll have a lot less people throwing them."
Anuszewski thinks attendance will drop off in the next two to three years but could grow in the long run. He has been an infield regular for 16 years and will be there again this summer, he said.
"You have a lot of people that don't go because of the crowd that's there now," he said. "It will take a couple years for the word of mouth to get out and say, 'Look, man, it's not as bad as it used to be.' I think you'll start getting more people coming back."
Concert promoter Seth Hurwitz, who is responsible for putting together the infield music lineup, said the new Pimlico policy is in accord with the practice at major concerts.
"The rest of the world doesn't let you cart in coolers of beer," Hurwitz said. "I don't think this is something people aren't used to."
The new Pimlico rules follow similar guidelines at the other two Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. The Derby also has an infield area, but Churchill Downs has long prohibited all beverages in cans and bottles, coolers and even backpacks. Belmont Park does not have an infield, but it does have a public party area behind the grandstand called "The Backyard," where patrons are permitted to bring soft drinks but not alcohol.
For the Preakness, infield fans will be able to bring in coolers and backpacks containing food. Coolers, which will be inspected, can be no larger than 28 inches long, 15 inches wide and 17 inches high. Other items permitted in the infield include lightweight plastic lawn chairs, beach blankets, sunscreen lotion, cell phones, cameras (up to 35 mm), camcorders and binoculars. Top-of-the-stretch seats, which are clustered near the starting line in the infield and cost $110, have a smaller limit on coolers.
While the new beer policy could affect attendance in the infield, any negative effect on wagering for Preakness Day is likely to be minimal. Although infield spectators make up about half of the total attendance, the betting from infield patrons amounts to only 5 percent of the total wagered at Pimlico on Preakness Day.
The hope among Jockey Club officials is that the change in the character of the infield will attract more people in their late 20s and early 30s and that some of those new attendees might become loyal fans. Still, there are those who lament the loss of the Preakness' freewheeling days.
Dan Mox, 42, of Pasadena was attending the races at Laurel Park yesterday and said the new beer policy would reduce fighting and make the Preakness a safer event. But then he turned nostalgic.
"I used to go religiously," he said. "We used to drag our beer in coolers. I always remember the Preakness as being open about that kind of stuff. It's tradition. I prefer the old way."
Baltimore Sun reporter Patrick Gutierrez contributed to this article.
See video from the announcement at baltimoresun.com/sports