2023 Preakness: Diversity efforts start to pay off for an event that didn’t always include Baltimore’s Black community

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Kevin Liles first attended the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown series, as a teenager with his father in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until years later that he fully understood what was happening at the Pimlico Race Course.

“You cut me open, I bleed Baltimore. So I knew about Preakness since I was a little kid,” Liles said. “But I never felt like it was something — even though it was in the Pimlico area — I didn’t really know that it was something that we could have access to or we should even go to.”


Liles is the chairman and CEO of the multi-genre record label 300 Elektra Entertainment in addition to serving as the curator of Preakness Live, the food, music and art festival that happens alongside the horse racing. He made waves last year by bringing rapper Megan Thee Stallion and Ms. Lauryn Hill to headline the event; this year, the star power is being brought by Bruno Mars.

Liles estimated there was a 30-40% uptick in people of color attending last year’s Preakness.


“I think there was a whole new level of interest,” Liles said. “That 16-year-old kid that I was, he got into it.”

Black Baltimoreans who are bringing Preakness to life agree: The Preakness of the past couple of years feels starkly different from the one they largely watched from afar growing up.

At the 148th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, attendees will get to see a groundswell of area Black leaders, including Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, the state’s first Black governor. And if the diversification efforts pay off, there will be plenty of faces in the crowd that better represent the makeup of Baltimore, the longtime Preakness host.

“It is not lost on me that I’ll be the first Black Governor to preside over the activities this year, especially while being alongside my friend, Mayor Scott, and it’s something I don’t take lightly,” said Moore, a Democrat, in an emailed statement. “The Preakness has gone to great lengths to ensure that no one is left behind. They have greatly supported local businesses, several of which are minority-owned, given away tickets to community members, provided grant programs, and launched a LIVE program aimed to bridge the chasm between the racetrack and the city.”

This year, the Maryland Jockey Club and creative agency Kiss Tomorrow Hello launched Preak Weeks, a three-week promotion ending Friday. As a part of that initiative, more than 20 Baltimore businesses were given QR codes for customers to scan and buy tickets to Preakness; purchases made through those codes kick back 10% of proceeds to the home business, according to 1/ST, the owner of the Pimlico race track and Maryland Jockey Club. Additionally, the businesses were given a pair of Preakness tickets to give free to customers.

“We really wanted to drive support and economic value to local, independent, and in many cases, small BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and women-owned businesses,” said Audra Madison, the director of marketing for Maryland Jockey Club. “It’s to showcase the uniqueness of the different businesses but also allowing the businesses to have broader visibility through the Preakness platform.”

Madison said there are plans to add more businesses to the promotion in coming years.

Letta Moore, a Black business owner who operates KSM Candle Co. in Woodberry, is participating in Preak Weeks and hopes the enthusiasm around the event spreads to small businesses like hers.


“Preakness is something that has been happening in Baltimore as a tradition for quite some time and it’s nice to be able to have some of the smaller businesses involved in potentially reaping some benefits from the revenue it pulls in each year,” Moore said.

Attendees in the upper grandstand at the 147th Preakness Stakes in 2022.

Jason Bass, the founder of Baltimore-based Kiss Tomorrow Hello, said he’s seen 1/ST’s engagement with the community “improve tremendously” over the last couple of years. But that wasn’t always the case. Bass, a Baltimore native, said he was aware of Preakness growing up but wasn’t interested in it.

“I think that the sport itself was always seen as an elitist sport that wasn’t necessarily welcoming to people of color as a participant but instead, maybe as someone who was, was working the events,” Bass said. “It’s not that it was a negative space. It just wasn’t talking to me.”

Bass said you can see the difference today across several areas — the marketing for the race, the entertainment, the food. He added that because Preakness can be as significant as the Super Bowl for some, the changes underway are “incredibly important.”

Preakness takes place near Park Heights, which according to Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit community development corporation, comprises over 20,000 residents and 12 neighborhoods.

Gov. Moore said the event would be “incomplete” without the Park Heights community.


“It’s imperative for Maryland to support an experience where everyone is welcome,” he said.

Kevin Seawright, the board chair for Park Heights Renaissance, said 100 years of history can’t be changed in two years. But the organization is excited about the path ahead.

“We can’t change ancient history,” Seawright said. “But what we will say is in the last couple of years we have felt a part of the process. We have felt a part of what has happened.”

Seawright said the Park Heights community has received about 800 free Preakness tickets over the last two years, a “big step forward.”

Yolanda Jiggetts, the CEO of Park Heights Renaissance, said that people have been excited when calling for tickets this year, a change from the past.

Jiggetts added that the audience at Preakness is “definitely diversifying.”


Park Heights Renaissance also has been instrumental in highlighting the Black community during Preakness. On June 3, the organization will host the second annual George “Spider” Anderson Preakness Music and Arts Festival, named after the first African-American jockey to win the Preakness in 1889. The event was rescheduled from May 13 due to inclement weather.

Jiggetts said Park Heights Renaissance has been working to build a partnership with Preakness over the past two years. The goal is to ensure the Preakness team and partners “are just as committed to redevelopment and reinvestment in Park Heights as we are.”

While getting the Park Heights community involved in Preakness — both as attendees and vendors — is a goal, Jiggetts has her eyes on long-term, year-round investment in the community.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott. left, and Kevin Liles, CEO of 300 Entertainment, at a launch event for last year's Preakness.

In an emailed statement, Mayor Scott said Preakness brings visitors “from all over the world to one of many historically disinvested neighborhoods in Baltimore.”

“As we further the renaissance happening throughout the city and work to rebuild the Park Heights neighborhood, our budding entrepreneurs and minority and women-owned businesses will be at the forefront, providing goods and services to the hundreds of thousands of visitors that will descend upon Northwest Baltimore year after year,” Scott said.

In the past, Liles said, Preakness was just something that happened in Baltimore, as opposed to other stops along the Triple Crown series that got talked about by residents year-round. He wants to change that.


“I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been to Belmont. They’re not in Park Heights. The location where the Preakness is held is historic for African-Americans who have been, I’d say, oppressed in a particular manner and they’ve never participated in these great things that have happened,” Liles said. “That distinction alone allows people to know you don’t just have to look through the window. You can break the window.

“You can break the window and it might take time; it took us 44 elections to have an African-American president, so it might take us time to get there,” he said. “But we will get there with resilience and excellence.”