Preakness infield “clean-up” makes sense to me…

February 05, 2009 | Drew Forrester

The horsing around in the infield on Preakness Saturday has come to an end.

And it’s the right thing to do.

Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) officials today unveiled a plan to “upgrade” the Preakness infield experience with a variety of changes to the race-day program, the most notable of which is a “no beverage policy” for the 60,000 or so who call the infield home at the Preakness.

Patrons will no longer be permitted to bring beverages of any kind – beer, soda, water – into the infield, but food and coolers will still be allowed.  

Additionally, officials today said 16 ounce beers will be available in the infield for $3.50 each and soda and water will also be available at “reasonable prices”.

This year (May 16), an infield concert will feature two top-flight acts, as Buckcherry and ZZ Top will take the stage during the afternoon to make “Infield Fest” a combination horse-race-party and concert venue.  A Pro Beach Volleyball doubles tournament will also be part of the infield experience and a “interactive area” will give infield customers the opportunity to drive a virtual NASCAR vehicle and play Guitar Hero with and against their friends and other infield partyers.

There, that’s the “official” word on what changes are being made.  In a nutshell, you can’t bring 100 beers with you anymore and act like a complete maniac before getting into a fight at 2:30pm and passing out at 4:30pm. 

You will still be able to drink beer – presumably as much as you want – providing you’re willing to fork over $3.50 for each one you consume.  If beer isn’t your drink of choice, water and soda will be available throughout the day.

There will be public outcry from this.  “What the hell…we can’t bring our own booze anymore?  That was the biggest reason why I went in the first place!”

Unfortunately, over the last few years, the dirty little secret that no one wanted to talk about was this:  the infield was becoming a safety and health risk because of the guys and gals who drank too much and then behaved in almost-unimaginable fashion – in public, no less.  By noon, the scene was a combination of Animal House, Fight Club and the latest Peter North adult video.  Simply put, it has gotten completely out of hand in the infield.  

That’s the truth.

Last year, the “new thing” was for people to hurl unopened, full cans of beer at folks as they came out of the spot-a-pot.  I’m not exaggerating.  The other “cool” thing to do late in the day was to find an unsuspecting male enjoying the afternoon sunshine and “cold cock” him to see if you could knock him out. With 60,000 customers in the infield protected by 1,000 security officials, it became impossible to control the masses and reduce or eliminate the possibility that people were going to get hurt.

It got THAT ugly in the infield in the 21st century. 

Sure, not everyone who enjoyed the infield experience was a miscreant…far from it.  But the troublemakers were making it enough of a problem that new measures had to be taken.  

By bringing in ZZ Top and Buckcherry, officials are hoping their infield crowd more closely resembles the annual August VirginFest rather than a Grateful Dead concert.  

The times, they are a changin’.

MJC officials are moving forward with a more “sophisticated” approach to marketing the Preakness and, in particular, the infield celebration.  It’s hard to market to a more professional demographic when nut jobs are throwing full cans of beer at people as part of a “ritual” that does nothing except open MJC to the potential for lawsuits, bad publicity and, ultimately, the decline of the event from an attendance and revenue standpoint.

It only takes one major incident where scores of folks are injured or, heaven forbid, killed (see The Who concert in Cincinnati back in 1979), and the event is forever tarnished.  Today’s announcement by the Maryland Jockey Club is a reasonable step to ensuring that such an incident won’t occur at Pimlico on Preakness Saturday.  Likewise, and more importantly, today’s announcement also gives people who might have previously given up on attending the event, because of the shenanigans, a reason to reinvest their time and money and attend Maryland’s top sporting event.

Some news agencies today have led with the headline: “Alcohol banned in Preakness infield”.  Wrong. Alcohol will be available in the infield, you just can’t drag your cooler filled with four cases of (insert your favorite lager here) into the infield anymore.  If that keeps you from going, you’re probably doing the event a favor, frankly.

And, please…don’t bellyache about $3.50 beers.  You pay $8.00 for a beer at a Ravens game.  If you’re one of the 9,000 who still patronize the Orioles, you’re paying $12.00 for a beer and a hot dog.  Go to your local Friday night hotspot and order a 16 ounce beer of your choice.  If you pay LESS than $3.00, I’m shocked.  And ZZ Top and Buckcherry aren’t playing at your favorite watering hole, either.

Will the infield crowd suffer – numbers wise – in 2009?  That’s certainly a possibility.  But if the folks at MJC market the event the right way and get the word out about the concerts and the new alcohol policies, the “hit” they take will be minimal.

It’s encouraging to see the Maryland Jockey Club come to grips with the fact that the Preakness needed an upgrade.  It would have been easy for them to just raise the ticket prices by $5.00 or $10.00 and make a bunch of “new money” in that fashion.

Instead, they’ll spend upwards of $250,000 to bring in ZZ Top and Buckcherry and another $50,000 or so to stage the volleyball tournament and the other interactive events that will be part of “Infield Fest”.  

Yes, they’ll make money off of the sale of beverages, but ticket prices are staying the same.  

To me, everyone wins here.  Those of you who are longtime infield patrons can go in 2009 and be less concerned with your safety and more concerned with enjoying the afternoon.  Those who haven’t been before should take this opportunity to start your own 3rd-Saturday-in-May tradition and take part in one of the great traditions in Baltimore sports.  And for those of you who are up-in-arms about the no-alcohol policy and will pitch a fit and “not go anymore”…that’s probably just fine with the folks at Pimlico.

Let’s raise our glass and toast a new and improved Preakness Saturday.

Just don’t bring the glass into the infield with you.