BALTIMORE – The Preakness infield was set up for the usual huge crowd. The stage for ZZ Top was ready, the security guards in place and the vendors eager to hawk their beer, food and souvenirs.
Only one thing was missing: people.
The new policy prohibiting fans from bringing in their own beer severely cut into the attendance Saturday at Pimlico Race Course. Sections of the infield ordinarily jammed with teenagers, rowdy young men and scantily clad women remained completely empty. Lines at the portable toilets, concession stands and souvenir shops were nonexistent.
That might seem like a good thing to those in attendance. But many rated the new format a complete dud.
“They need to bring back the coolers, bring back the party. There’s nothing going on here,” said Wallace Moore, 28, who set up his chair about 30 feet from the track. “Last year, I couldn’t even find a spot to sit down. Now I’ve got my pick of anywhere.”
Attendance at Saturday’s race was 77,850 – down significantly from the 112,222 in 2008. Handle, however, rose approximately $13 million to $86,684,470.
Moore and Anthony Cristo drove down from New Jersey for the fifth year in a row. After Cristo accidentally spilled his beer, he lamented his $3.50 mistake by saying, “If I did that last year, I’d just grab another.”
To compensate for not allowing fans to bring in alcohol, Pimlico officials sold beer at modest prices. From 8-11 a.m., fans could get a cup for a buck. After that, it was $3.50 for 16 ounces of beer.
“Kids my age won’t pay that much,” said 21-year-old Kendall Wadsworth, who went to the race with her father. “I talked to a lot of my friends, and if they can’t bring their own beer, they’re not going to go. If you could pay $1 all day that would be different. It wouldn’t cost that much to get wasted.”
The policy change was designed to create a different environment in the anything-goes infield, where fans running atop the portable toilets became stars in YouTube videos and others lobbed full cans of beer at one another. It created a sometimes-dangerous scene – one that was not particularly inviting for families or anyone without a helmet.
“It needed to change,” Tom Chuckas, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said Saturday. “We tried to reduce some of the craziness, but tradition is very difficult to change and culture is difficult to change. It’s going to take a couple of years to modify that.”
Chuckas acknowledged that the change would cost Pimlico at the ticket and betting windows. But he insisted that the track will never again allow fans to bring in their own beer.
“Do I regret the decision? No. I think it’s going to be a process, it’s going to take two or three years,” he said. “We’ll probably lose some money at this, but sometimes short-term losses turn into a long-term gain. To be honest, we expected some decline. Maybe not to this level, but we still believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Not only was attendance down, but so was the fun for those who love to drink in excess.
“This is definitely the weakest year,” Cristo said. “We thought it might work, but let’s face it. It didn’t.”
The change also had a negative influence on the local economy. In years past, 13-year-old Travon Gunthrop would collect a healthy tip for using his shopping cart to tote cases of beer to the entrance of the infield.
On Saturday, he was stuck with an empty cart and no customers.
“It’s dead,” he said. “I made $100 last year. Now I’ve got $2.”
The souvenir stands in the track were no different. Fewer customers meant fewer sales for Jeff Bull, who had several tables filled with shirts and glasses as the clock neared noon.
“This place is usually mobbed by now. I’d have sold half my stuff and would be asking for more,” he said.
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