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Preakness officials predict record crowd despite forecasts of steady rain, cool temperatures Saturday

Timothy Townsend of West Baltimore works with a crew cleaning the grandstand seats at Pimlico in preparation for Saturday's Preakness.
Timothy Townsend of West Baltimore works with a crew cleaning the grandstand seats at Pimlico in preparation for Saturday's Preakness. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

A soaking rain could dampen the 141st Preakness, but organizers are nonetheless predicting record crowds for a third straight year.

The Maryland Jockey Club expects as many as 135,000 people to attend what is the biggest single-day event in the state. It has offered 2,000 more tickets to infield festivities and hospitality tents than a year ago.

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Baltimore police have canceled all leaves and will put extra officers to duty at Pimlico Race Course and around the city in preparation for the crowds.

Up to an inch of rain and chilly weather are forecast from Friday night through Saturday night, which some say could lessen Preakness attendance — and the event's financial impact on the jockey club and the region.

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"The weather might be a huge factor," said Daraius Irani, an economist at Towson University and director of the university's Regional Economic Studies Institute. Reduced attendance would mean less spending not only at the race but on retail purchases afterward, he said.

Last year's event, while marked by a thundering downpour as the marquee race began, brought a record crowd of nearly 132,000 amid otherwise ideal conditions. That crowd helped spur an estimated $34 million economic impact, state economic officials estimate.

Sal Sinatra, jockey club general manager, said he expects to come close to or break that attendance record. He's less concerned about the weather, noting lower temperatures tend to drive up concessions sales.

"I think we're going to be OK," Sinatra said. "I think as the day goes on, it's going to clear."

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A moisture-laden low-pressure system reminiscent of the winter storm that dumped a record snowfall on Baltimore in January is forecast to reach the region by late Friday night.

Heavy rain is forecast at least through Saturday morning, and showers are expected to continue until sundown, said Dan Hofmann, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington forecast office.

Earlier this week, forecasters predicted the storm could bring Central Maryland as much as 2 inches of rain. More recently, the area of heaviest precipitation has shifted southward into Virginia. Temperatures will likely struggle to rise out of the 50s.

"The confidence in rain on Saturday is about 100 percent," Hofmann said. "The rainfall amounts are a little less certain … but it still looks like a soaking rain."

The forecast doesn't daunt jockey club officials. Last year, the thunderstorm that struck at post time for the Preakness caught many attendees off-guard, but this year, Sinatra expects crowds will be better prepared.

Ticket sales for Friday's Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico picked up this week, perhaps because of the weather forecast, he said. Sunshine and temperatures in the 70s are forecast Friday.

For Saturday, Sinatra said, tickets in most sections of the grandstand and infield hospitality tents are sold out — as is the Preakness InfieldFest's "mug club," which offers unlimited beer refills.

As long as there is no lightning —thunderstorms are not in the forecast — a schedule of events from the first concert at 8:15 a.m. to the final horse race at 7:08 p.m. is expected to go on, rain or shine.

In the past, weather has affected Preakness crowds. In 2013, with clouds and spotty rain showers, attendance fell 3 percent compared to the previous year. Attendance hit a then-record 104,000 in 2001, but thousands fewer people came the following two years with rain leading up to or during the races.

Public safety agencies are readying for whatever crowd turns up Saturday. About 600 federal, state and local law enforcement officers, along with 250 security officers, will be stationed around Pimlico to help with crowd control and direct traffic, officials said.

For city police, leave is canceled and additional officers will be on duty to provide a general presence at Pimlico, while maintaining officers at posts throughout the city, Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith said.

Police expect a trend of declining security incidents to continue. Crowds once known for drunken footraces atop portable toilets have calmed since Pimlico forbade outside alcohol at the infield party in 2009.

In 2015, only one arrest was made and 50 people were ejected.

"Since the policy has changed, our ejection and arrested rate has decreased about 95 percent," said Maj. Mike Singletary, vice president of security operations for the jockey club.

Security fears were heightened last year — Preakness was staged less than three weeks after the city was torn by riots and looting following the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died of injuries sustained while in police custody.

Yet a record 131,680 came nonetheless. That was considered critical because the nationally televised race — the second leg of the prestigious Triple Crown — generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in "advertising equivalency" for the city, said Sam Rogers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Visit Baltimore.

Attendees also spent an estimated $4.5 million at Baltimore-area hotels, restaurants and retail stores, according to a state Department of Commerce study. The report estimated a total $33.7 million economic impact on the region.

Similar or greater spending at this year's Preakness could be key for the jockey club as it considers the future of the event. Amid talk of possibly moving the Preakness from Pimlico, which opened in 1870 but cannot support significant renovation, the Maryland Stadium Authority will gather data Saturday for a study of the facility's economic health.

Officials have suggested moving Preakness to Laurel Park — also owned by the jockey club — or tearing down Pimlico and rebuilding.

The Preakness nets about $7 million to $8 million for the jockey club, which until recently otherwise lost about $1 million every other month of the year, Sinatra said. He's hopeful the club will turn a profit this year.

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Democrat whose district includes Pimlico, said the Preakness remains a source of jobs, economic development and pride.

"To have every year an athletic event of this magnitude bringing in people from across the country is a big deal," Rosenberg said.

All of the Pimlico-area hotels listed on the Preakness website are sold out for Friday night, according to their websites.

Sales at Hats in the Belfry, which has two stores in Baltimore and one in Annapolis, hit their typical high point this week despite the forecast, said Grayson Owen, manager of the Fells Point store.

Top sellers include the "Belfry Fabulous," a Panama straw hat with a big brim that costs $199.

"A lot of people are going to be indoors, so they're not as worried," he said. "We're getting a few people looking for either rain hats or something a little more water-resistant."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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