Preakness infield strikes right balance for booze, fun

There have been years when the scene in the Preakness infield has been too rowdy and years when it has been too tame, but 2011 might go down as the year when management struck the right balance at Pimlico Race Course.

The food was plentiful, the music from the right century, and the beer and toilet lines were mercifully short for much of the day.

For those who cared, there actually were horse races. It didn't hurt that the weather couldn't have been better if it had been ordered out of a catalog — sunny and about 80, with a gently caressing breeze.

"It's a great day to be an American," exulted Mike Bauman, 22, who came from St. Joseph, Mich., to meet up with some of his University of Michigan buddies for his first Preakness.

It didn't hurt at all that the Americans at this year's Preakness weren't running into the long beer lines that occurred at last year's event, when Pimlico introduced its Mug Club approach — cheap refills after an initial beer purchase — instead of the restrictive measures adopted in 2009 in response to the debauchery of earlier years.

"We haven't had to wait in line all day. It's awesome, excellent," said Kellie Dickerson as she emerged from a tent with a tall mug of cold brew.

Dickerson, 35, had come to the Preakness from Virginia Beach with friends Cathy Kincaid, 49, and Peter O'Sullivan, 53, for their first Preakness. Triple Crown fans, they decided this year to see one of the races in person.

They came, she said, for "a little wagering, a little beverage consumption, maybe a lot of beverage consumption."

Baltimore police described the party as tamer than in years past.

"The goal is to have the police as out of sight as possible and as uninvolved in craziness as possible," Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said as he walked through the infield. "We just want everybody to have a good time. If we're not called into action, it's been a great day."

Bealefeld, as much of a booster of the city as he is its 3,000-member Police Department, said the changes in alcohol policy instituted by the Jockey Club in recent years have improved the quality of the event.

"It just upped the environment," the commissioner said. He remembers working the event as a patrol officer and a sergeant, and recalled that it was "just nuts."

On Saturday, Bealefeld noted the well-behaved infield crowd. "We just walked through there, and what did you see? A bunch of nothing." He received updates every 30 minutes. By 2 p.m., the only action was three people ejected for fighting.

So what does a police commissioner do at the city's biggest event of the year on a beautiful day with attendees largely behaving themselves? He ducked into the Under Armour corporate tent to say hello to CEO Kevin Plank before one of Plank's horses was to race, then watched from a few feet away as the horses raced by.

Officials at the city's emergency management command center estimated the infield crowd at 14,500, with just five people being thrown out by 3 p.m. Nine people were taken to hospitals, most suffering from dehydration or cuts and bruises, according to Bob Maloney, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management.

"It's really calmed down out here," he said. In years past, "we'd have 20 people at the hospital by now."

At one point, a call came into the command center about a big fight near a Budweiser tent. But the combatants apparently dispersed before police arrived.

"It's been very smooth," Maloney said. "We're all from here, and we want everyone to have a good time."

Police Lt. Sam Hood, who was observing the concert crowd from his post in front of the Jack Daniel's trailer, said people were "well-behaved."

You don't see the drunken stupor that you used to see," he said. "They're engaged with the events. You don't have them doing their own events."

Many of the infield-goers were repeat customers for whom the event is an excuse to get dolled up — even if the manner was less elegant than that on display in the grandstand area.

Lynn Carothers, 59, of Aberdeen was sporting a straw hat with bright Triple Crown colors and a plastic replica of Big Brown, a onetime Kentucky Derby champion and one of the most successful horses of his day. She said it was the 37th Preakness that she and her friend, Donna Clem, 58, of Baltimore, have attended.

"It's slowly going back to what it was," she said,

Carothers said that in the years leading up to 2007, the year of the notorious "Running of the Urinals" of YouTube fame, the infield crowds had been getting "a little too rowdy."

The unruly behavior that year prompted Pimlico to swing to the other extreme, with expensive by-the-drink prices and a ban on bringing in alcohol. Infield attendance dropped drastically. But the Mug Club concept that debuted in 2010 seemed to be gaining in popularity, thanks to improved customer service.

Tim Lare of Hampstead came to his first Preakness in 1973, the year Secretariat won the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

"I think he paid $2.80," Lare recalled.

Lare kept going to Pimlico for its big race every year until 2000, and stopped because of the rowdiness in the infield. He tried the grandstand once but thought it "too crowded." Lare returned Saturday to a gentler, kinder infield.

"It's more refined," he said. "Give it time, and it will start going back to what it used to be."

For the first time, a family area was set up in the infield. The message apparently didn't get out, because at noon it was nearly empty.

Darryl Greb, who came with his wife, Dee, and their two teenage sons and a neighbor, found a spot near the fence with a great view of the backstretch.

Greb, a retired sheriff's deputy in St. Mary's County, had never been to the Preakness before but had been to events that were known for similar debauchery.

"I was probably one of the bad guys," he said. "I didn't want my kids to be exposed to that."