Four years ago, I described the first ever Preakness “Infieldfest” event as a “miserable failure” in a column here at WNST.net.
It was a terrible event in 2009, as many former attendees chose to boycott the event after the Maryland Jockey Club boldly announced they would ban the longtime tradition of allowing fans to bring their own beer to the Infield to revel. Attendance dipped well below 100,000 for the day, as the infield area was practically barren and few were compelled to come see musical acts like ZZ Top, Buckcherry and Charm City Devils.
We love a good sports redemption story, don’t we?
It’s with that in mind that Preakness has officially surpassed Josh Hamilton as the best redemption story of the millennium. And not because Preakness is capable of hitting home runs in September, either.
The 2013 version of Preakness was absolutely fantastic Saturday at Pimlico, despite the weather not being fully cooperative. The event was festive, energetic, fun and most importantly an outstanding representation of Baltimore on a national scale. Now seeing what the Preakness has become, it’s hard to imagine the event was ever the embarrassing, dangerous frat party it was known as throughout the country in the 90′s and much of the early 2000′s.
Perhaps the most amazing part of what the Maryland Jockey Club has accomplished with their transformation of Preakness is that they managed to keep the already existing positive aspects of the event and actually improve them in the process of gutting the most seedy parts of the event. (Combined with the fact that that they’ve done it without the type of support from their ownership (The Stronach Group) that would allow for major infrastructure changes, whether they be to the facility or to the year-long pedestal the sport of horse racing can be placed on within the state of Maryland.)
I did my best to visit every part of Pimlico Saturday, from the barns to the corporate village to the clubhouse to the grandstand to the press box to the turn to the infield and even to the Sports Palace (admittedly they thought twice before letting me in there). I was blown away with the number of stories people would tell me about how they had made a trip to the infield during the course of the day.
There was the Cockeysville girl (Nikki) in her late 20′s who was sitting in her family’s box on the turn who told me she took a break from the all you can drink area to see Florida Georgia Line because she is a big country music fan.
There was the mid-30′s man from Towson (AJ) whose friends had seats in the grandstand but wandered out to the infield with his college buddies to see Chevelle. He told me he didn’t even really mind having to pay for beer because it was still cheaper ($4) than most events.
There was the 40-something sales exec from Pikesville (Dustin) I bumped into during Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ main stage set. He was with a group that had a tent in the corporate village but told me it was nice to have the option to visit both spots.
There were the many Baltimore Ravens players (namely Torrey Smith, Arthur Jones, Justin Tucker, Michael Oher, Kelechi Osemele and Jameel McClain) who ventured seemingly everywhere around the track that I caught hanging around the stage as Pitbull was playing to a massive throng. I seemed to bump into these guys just about everywhere I went, including the huge Under Armour pavilion on the infield.
A neat thing about this entire group? They all talked to me at least a bit about horse racing. Whether they were asking me if I bought into Orb, trying to talk up another horse or even talking to me about some of the other races they had bet on during the course of the day, there was real horse racing conversation.
The Preakness infield has gone from the frightening spot where you would fear seeing your high school daughter end up to the must-attend place to be every May. It’s gone from the place where frat boy types up and down the east coast would descend simply because they knew the rules would allow for them to be a-holes to the place where young people from the Charm City region celebrate a rite of passage in the spring.
It’s not as if Infieldfest is without flaws, as the amount of alcohol consumed on the infield still allows from a few bad people to do questionable things. But it isn’t what Preakness once was. “The Running of the Urinals” is far gone and “the run to get tickets because we have to be there” is now very real. Just ask anyone who realized they missed their chance to join “The Mug Club” in the last couple of weeks.
I hope the MJC remains invested in upgrading Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico as well. I talk regularly about how special Kentucky Oaks day is in Louisville, and I believe there’s the possibility for the same to happen in Charm City. The partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the addition of live music (the Goo Goo Dolls helped bring a crowd of nearly 40,000 to Pimlico Friday) have been real upgrades, but more can still be done in the coming years by both the MJC and by the city of Baltimore to embrace the full weekend event.
I can’t say enough about how one bold decision made by Tom Chuckas and the Maryland Jockey Club ultimately reversed the course of Preakness forever. I criticized them in 2009. I was wrong. It took time, but what’s happened over the course of the last few years has been spectacular.
I can’t even imagine what the event is capable of becoming if Frank Stronach’s recent claims of major future investments in the track are truthful. I’ll admit skepticism, but I was also the guy that was more than skeptical of Infieldfest in 2009.
I was ultimately very wrong. I hope to be again.