Half-man, half-horse and altogether drunk, the Preakness' newest pitchman, introduced Tuesday, is a "party manimal" with one job: reassuring young people that this year's infield festivities will indeed be rowdy, raunchy and booze-soaked.
Kegasus, a centaur with a nipple ring, body hair and ample beer gut, is the centerpiece of the new ad campaign for Maryland's leg of the Triple Crown. Starting this week, he'll be spreading his hard-partying message on television, radio and social media outlets that cater to the 21- to 40-year-olds the race hopes to reach.
Only hours old, the campaign was already garnering criticism Tuesday for being tasteless and encouraging binge drinking. Jason Loviglio, director of media and communications studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, declared it "awful," "depressing" and "sad," but also predicted it would be quite effective.
"If the goal is to let them know they will be able to drink to excess, it does communicate that," he said. "If there's confusion about whether they'll be able to pursue sunstroke and alcohol poisoning, seeing this, it's clear indication that yes, they will."
Shrugging off the disapproval, Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said an over-the-top figure like Kegasus is just the thing to get young people fired up for the May 21 race.
"It talks their language," Chuckas says of the infield demographic. "We have never hidden the fact that we want people to come to the infield and party."
The lusty centaur is racing officials' answer to last year's suggestive "Get Your Preak On" campaign. Also dinged by some for being offensive, that series of ads, which included a young man bragging about how he got his "Preak" on with an elderly woman, could have helped fill the infield with about 40,000 revelers.
Race officials endeavored last year to lure back infield partiers who abandoned the Preakness in 2009 after the event banned BYOB. With their ad campaign, organizers brushed aside questions of propriety to be sure young people understood that if they wanted debauchery, the infield wouldn't disappoint.
They announced cheaper tickets, hipper bands and a bikini contest — all of which they'll bring back this year. They sent pretty girls out to nightclubs in skimpy "Preak On" tank tops to cajole barflies into buying tickets — a move they'll repeat with the addition of Kegasus. And most critically, they offered a bottomless $20 mug of beer, which, Kegasus is here to say, isn't going anywhere.
The Jockey Club hired D.C.-based Elevation Ltd. to develop the campaign — the same company that created the "Get Your Preak On" spots. Officials at Elevation didn't return calls on Tuesday, but a number of ad experts were quick to praise the campaign.
"Considering the target is 18-to-25-year-old party animals looking to have a legendary party, by creating a legendary party animal — literally — they've done a good job of marketing to that group," says Brian Eden, associate creative director for the Baltimore-based Carton Donofrio Partners.
With its outrageous central character, Eden said, the ad is the sort of thing that creates "social capital," meaning, certain young men will likely get points for looking cool when they share Kegasus bits with their Facebook friends.
If the centaur turns off the older, tamer population, Eden doesn't think that matters much.
"Their mission is pretty clear here," he says. "They're not talking to the ladies with the big flowered hats in the grandstand."
Which is good, because Lisa Simeone, someone who's thoroughly enjoyed dressing up and sipping champagne at the horse race like one of those ladies, finds the campaign appalling.
"It's just an embarrassment," says the freelance radio host and writer. "The guy looks like a bloated drunk. Are you kidding me? There's no way to say this is not encouraging outright drunkenness."
Del. Pat McDonough, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties who complained about last year's campaign, is no less disgusted this year.
"Once again it's infantile, foolish, and it creates a really negative image of horse racing, Preakness and the track," McDonough says. "Why are we basing an image promotion on alcohol consumption?"
McDonough did praise the Preakness for its renewed emphasis on booking bands for the event — Grammy-Award-winning artists Bruno Mars and Train are headlining this year. But he's dismayed that the advertising instead portrays the event as "a kegger for sororities and fraternities."
On the event's website (theinfieldfest.com), the homepage depicts Kegasus in his element, a dank, wood-paneled "man stall" with beer mugs lined up on the window sill, not far from a pitcher and the full-blown keg he was apparently named for. Bikini tops dangle from the walls. Cheese curls fill a basket.
"Be legendary," he implores.
"Half-horse half-man with beer in hand, he strolls the infieldfest," goes the first Kegasus radio ditty, featured on YouTube with a picture of the centaur gripping a beer mug in each fist. "He's bold, he rocks, he's hot to trot, for girls with beautiful yes!"
In 2009, Preakness attendance plummeted after organizers barred spectators from bringing beverages to the track. The move was an attempt to avoid another public relations disaster like 2007's "Running of the Urinals," when drunks who had been partying in the infield all afternoon starting running across the tops of portable toilets as onlookers pelted them with full cans of beer and others taped the antics and put them online.
Since restoring the all-you-can-drink aspect to the infield, race organizers have been walking a tightrope between promoting bottomless beers and keeping control of the crowd.
Hoping for an atmosphere that portrayed just that sort of balance — fun but not insane — John Myers bought an infield ticket last year. Though he enjoyed himself, and the music in particular, after catching a glimpse of Kegasus, he knows he won't be back.
"When you see the promotions for the Kentucky Derby or even Belmont, they never highlight the ridiculous stuff, but it seems like Baltimore is banking on it," the 35-year-old from Parkville says. "I'd love to see the infield be a place for drinking, but also a place where a family could picnic and see the horses. This makes me think of 'Animal House.' It doesn't do anything for me at all."