Preakness organizers took a different approach to the 2023 version of the storied event, welcoming an international pop star to take the stage following the race. Instead of performing during the day or Friday, the weekend’s biggest performer — Bruno Mars — played shortly after the running of the 148th Preakness Stakes.
The result was an attendance total that was slightly higher than last year’s, when Megan Thee Stallion and Lauryn Hill performed on the eve of Preakness 2022, but one that still paled in comparison to the previous decade.
1/ST Racing, owners of Pimlico Race Course and the Maryland Jockey Club, said Sunday in a news release that a combined 65,000 people attended Friday, which was Black-Eyed Susan Day, and Saturday. By comparison, roughly 182,000 attended the events over two days in 2019, meaning turnout this year was a little more than a third of the total for the last Preakness before the pandemic.
The smaller crowd of the past two years was by design, 1/ST said, as they “reimagined the Preakness festivities.”
The past couple of years “were designed to reduce the event footprint for a fresh, inclusive and improved guest experience, and to ensure that the Pimlico facility could deliver that experience,” Mike Rogers, the Maryland Jockey Club acting president and general manager, said in a statement.
He noted there was an 8% increase in attendance from last year.
“This year’s Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness days were highly successful and we have heard from many guests that Preakness 148 was the best yet,” he stated. “We look forward to building upon that success for Preakness 149.”
In a news release just after last year’s event, 1/ST said: “This year’s reimagined festivities designed to reduce the event footprint for a fresh, post pandemic guest experience welcomed 60,000+ who wagered over $130 million on one of the hottest May days on record.” But a 1/ST spokesperson clarified Sunday that the “60,000+” figure actually referred to the entire 2022 weekend, not just the Preakness races. Last year’s Preakness Day attendance was just 42,055, according to a 1/ST media guide.
1/ST declined to provide a breakdown of how many of this year’s 65,000 fans attended Friday and how many were there Saturday, saying the information was not available Sunday.
Some racing fans said Saturday that the small crowd concerned them as it relates to the future of horse racing. The industry has downsized for years — nationally, more than 40 tracks have closed since 2000 — and a number of equine deaths recently has cast a shadow over the sport. A 3-year-old colt, Havnameltdown, broke down Saturday during the day’s sixth race with an injured leg. Black screens were brought onto the track to conceal the horse from the crowd, and he was euthanized as dance music continued to blast from the infield.
Each year from 2011 to 2019, attendance at the Preakness — meaning Saturday alone — surpassed 100,000. In the five years before the coronavirus pandemic, the event attracted an average of 135,000 spectators. Meanwhile, attendance at the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of the Triple Crown and in a class of its own when it comes to racing allure, has rebounded from the pandemic with 150,335 present this year.
Despite lower attendance at the Preakness, the betting handle (amount of money wagered) did not lag Saturday. About $102 million was wagered, similar to last year’s total of $104 million and more than the five-year average from 2015 to 2019 of $94 million.
The Preakness has been a two-in-one event with concerts complementing the slate of races since 2009.
Crowds of young concertgoers combined with racing’s traditionally older clientele make for a peculiar pairing. Racing fans had little interest Saturday in the infield stage — featuring acts from DJs and the electronic musical duo Sofi Tukker before Mars performed — while many concertgoers paid little mind to the races. Quizzed on who won the Kentucky Derby, some infield attendees did not know, nor were some aware that Havnameltdown was euthanized.
Others, however, hoped Derby winner Mage would finish first to keep his Triple Crown aspirations alive. However, National Treasure won the Preakness Stakes, giving trainer Bob Baffert a record eight Preakness wins. Baffert, who was suspended from last year’s Preakness following a failed drug test of 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, also trained Havnameltdown.
Mars played a brief, 45-minute set, including “24K Magic” and “Uptown Funk,” and electrified a crowd in spite of a downpour that started just after the races concluded. The American pop star has eight songs that have reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 list — so many that he didn’t even play them all Saturday.
In addition to the musical acts and politicians (such as Democratic Gov. Wes Moore and Democratic Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott), other celebrities attended the Preakness on a mostly pleasant, if overcast, day. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, as well as several players, including Odell Beckham Jr., Justin Tucker and Marlon Humphrey, came out, in addition to chef Bobby Flay and Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr.
Lillian Braswell Wise, 65, sets up a tent each year in a friend’s yard just outside Pimlico and sells food and drinks.
But the Park Heights native and Philadelphia resident is debating whether to return next year. Each of the past two years, sales were “way down” compared with before the pandemic. She noted a younger crowd in recent years and hoped that, regardless of age demographic, more people come out next year.
“Let it be younger or older,” she said. “I hope it’s better attended.”
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Note: Visualization shows high temperature as recorded from BWI each Preakness day since 1956.