From 'Meekness' back to 'Freakness'

For Jamie Myers, going to the Preakness and letting loose on the infield is a rite of passage, a youthful, bawdy tradition that, for better or worse, will always remind him of growing up in Baltimore.

There are real photos and those just in his mind of the mind-boggling consumption, the young women lifting their T-shirts, the epic carousing. He remembers that time when he and his buddies showed up outside Pimlico at 6 a.m. with two cases of beer, but by the time the gates opened at 9, they'd already drained it.

Though he's skipped it for a couple of years, the 34-year-old private school administrator will be back this weekend, hoping to find a taste of the wild Preakness of legend — even though race officials, fearing embarrassment and liability, have tamed the modern infield by barring spectators from bringing in drinks.

"New Orleans has Mardi Gras but in Baltimore, Preakness was our event, our day of craziness," Myers says. "I'm not going to see the band. I'm not going just for the bottomless mug club. I'm going to see if there's a bit of the old Preakness, see if there's still that spirit of 'you never know what you're going to see.'"

Race officials have bent over backward to lure back revelers who abandoned the Preakness last year with the start of the BYOB ban. Badly needing them back, organizers brushed aside questions of taste and propriety to let young folks know that if they want debauchery, the Preakness is where they'll find it.

They announced cheaper tickets, hipper bands and a bikini contest. They broadcast a risque ad campaign urging former race-goers to come back and "Get Your Preak On." They sent pretty girls out to hot spots in skimpy "Preak On" tank tops to cajole bar flies into buying tickets. And perhaps most vitally, they debuted a bottomless $20 mug of beer.

Chris Glisson heard the call. They had him at bottomless beer.

The 28-year-old tech worker who lives in Fells Point is giving the race another chance, mainly because with all the talk of beer and babes, it sounds like the Preakness might have rediscovered its boozy fundamentals.

"As long as they don't run out of beer," Glisson says, "I think it could be a good time."

Glisson created an invitation of sorts on Facebook, hoping he can get his friends to return, too. This is how it starts: "I know we're all bitter for what they did to the Preakness last year and I'm not sure if this is legit because it sounds too good to be true BUT if it is I thought you all might want to know about it. The important parts are all day drinking, OAR, Zach Brown Band, and all you can drink for $60."

So far, about 20 of his buddies have agreed to go.

Preakness organizers barred spectators from bringing beverages to the track last year, hoping to avoid another "Running of the Urinals" situation. In 2007, bad publicity was showered on the race after drunks who had been partying in the infield all afternoon starting running across the tops of portable toilets, even as onlookers pelted them with full cans of beer and others taped the antics and put them online.

Though race organizers tried to make up for the alcohol ban by turning the infield into more of a concert, some people figured that without drunkenness, lewdness and depravity in the infield, what was the point? They stayed away in droves.

"To be honest," Glisson says, "the BYOB and the free-for-all, that was what enticed us."

Last year, ticket sales were down 31 percent — the saddest turnout in 25 years.

But this year, with tweaks to the infield offerings and the unambiguous ad campaign, tickets sales are up greatly over last year's and just shy of 2008's numbers, says Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Chuckas thinks the Preakness has found a way to allow enough of an eyebrow-raising party in the infield to attract young people but not so much that it spills over into ugliness.

"It's a balancing act," he says. "It allows for a party atmosphere but leaves us in control."

The key changes to this year's infield lineup — those that seemed most crucial to luring folks back — are the prices and the musical acts.

Infield admission is dropping $10, to $40, and instead of forcing people to buy beers for $3.50 each, people can join the "mug club" for $20 and get 16-ounce mugs with unlimited refills.

While last year's offering of ZZ Top and Buckcherry drew collective yawns, people seem excited about seeing the rock group O.A.R. and the Zac Brown Band, a Grammy Award-winning country act.

The sexed-up marketing campaign was created to seal the deal.

The Jockey Club slapped the "Get Your Preak On" slogan on billboards and bus stops and placed racy commercials on radio, television and the Internet.

To supplement the ads, Chuckas thought it was important to reach out to potential infielders in their element. So, the Jockey Club had attractive young women go to bars and festivals in Fells Point and Towson. Dressed in skimpy tank tops, they sold infield tickets and talked up the event.

"We were out and about in the city, basically trying to generate interest and excitement," Chuckas said.

Mike McDonald, 25, a salesman for Verizon, used to love the Preakness for its tipsy mayhem. He thought the sheer possibility alone of the spectacle one might see worth the price of admission.

"Where else do you go at 9 a.m. and there's already a line of beer cans on the ground?" he says. "It did get pretty much out of control. But that created the fun. Things happened that you can't believe. People were doing everything."

Turned off by the booze ban, McDonald and his friends went to D.C. 101's Chili Cookoff last year. But now he's looking forward to seeing O.A.R. and thinks $60 is a fair price for the performance and admission to the mug club. If he gets to Pimlico at 9 a.m. or so, he thinks he'll easily drink $20 worth. And then some.

"It's coming back," he says of the Preakness. "In a way."

When Myers heads back to the infield this year, he's going to take his wife who's never been before. Though he's not eager for her to grasp — in graphic images — the full extent of his youthful indulgences, he is very much hoping that the infield will be at least a little as he remembers it. A little Sodom. Perhaps a sprinkle of Gomorrah.

"I don't want this turning into a Kentucky Derby thing with everyone laidback and sipping cocktails — that's not Baltimore," he says. "Preakness is a totally unique Baltimore thing. There's nothing like it."

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