Preakness, like Shackleford, was a winner on Saturday

May 21, 2011 | Drew Forrester

They came, they drank, they soaked up the sun and, hopefully, bet on Shackleford.

The 136th running of The Preakness went off without a hitch on Saturday at Pimlico and if the early returns are any indication, the Maryland Jockey Club has officially started to rebound from the 2009 “cleaner version” of our state’s most significant sporting event.

“We’ll be up in attendance and handle this year,” said MJC Vice President of Communications Mike Gathagan around 4:15 pm on Saturday.

Indeed it turned out that way.

The announced attendance was 107,398, 7th best all-time for the Preakness.  The all-sources handle of $73,376,689 was also ranked 7th all-time.

In summary…a lot of people showed up, had a good time, and bet money on the horses.

And that’s a good thing.

2009 was obviously a disaster for the Maryland Jockey Club, although they knew in their gut it wouldn’t be well received when they abolished the longtime “bring your own booze” policy and starting handling the sale and dispensing of beer themselves.  Last year was an improvement, as word had trickled out that the event was becoming more “people friendly” and a $20 all-you-can-drink beer offer was put in place that seemed wildly popular if not somewhat disorganized.

This year, there was nothing disorganized, at least to my eye.  I roamed around the infield and saw a smooth operation at the beer lines and a bunch of folks milling around enjoying their beverage, the sun and the bands that were performing.  By 4:00 pm, there had been three ejections — all for fighting — compared to “hundreds in the old days” as one longtime Baltimore police officer – working his 21st straight Preakness – told me.

I’m sure there were intoxicated people by 6:30 or so when the big race ended.  That’s one of the reasons they came, so they could drink beer all day and party with their friends.  It was an outdoor, mega version of Fells Point on a Friday night, except a bunch of horses ran around a track all afternoon.

The Maryland Jockey Club took an immense amount of heat three years ago for trying to tame the infield crowd.  They did it, they said then, in an effort to try and “clean up” the atmosphere and make the whole event more representative of what a day at the races SHOULD be…a good time for everyone, without the fear of personal injury.

This year’s marketing theme for the infield was Kegasus, a centaur with a beer belly and a nipple ring who encouraged folks attending the race to “Be Legendary!”.

I’m not sure exactly what legendary stuff he thought people would create in the infield, but I didn’t see anyone doing anything that will be talked about at a deck party in 5 years.  Lots of people were worried that the event’s mascot would somehow lead race-goes down a road of debauchery, but nothing out of the ordinary happened.  People showed up, drank a lot of beer and hopefully applied enough sunscreen to protect themselves.

It all looked reasonably good-natured to me, with gobs of corporate tents and people sharply dressed balancing out the scores of guys in t-shirts walking around cat-calling and whistling at pretty girls.

I’m not a fan of either of the marquee musical acts — Train and Bruno Mars — so I can’t offer any kind of formal review of their respective performances other than to say they were just there as white noise anyway.  Some media members – including The Sun, who still haven’t written anything positive about the whole day as far as I have read – said both of the main acts failed to “energize the crowd” but I don’t really think they were on hand to do that.  All of the music acts on the day were there to simply add some spice and sound to the day’s festivities.  That’s the way I look at it, anyway.  To sit there with a pen and paper and chronicle Train’s setlist and pick apart whether the lead singer was “on” or not made no sense to me.  But lots of media folks did just that.

All that mattered today was this:  The city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland prospered big time, as did a bunch of area businesses and people who have their livelihood tied into the 3rd Saturday in May.  It was a great day for everyone, particularly the Maryland Jockey Club, who are close to “getting it right” with their new-fangled idea that the Preakness can bring together 5 year olds, 15  years olds, 25 year olds, 45 year olds and 65 year olds.  In fact, I saw people of those ages throughout the day on Saturday, proof positive that the MJC’s approach is starting to click.

Bring on the 137th running in 2012.

I’ll bet you it’s even better than the one I witnessed today.