The Preakness InfieldFest has gone through quite a few iterations. For years, “The People's Party” devolved into a drunken, dangerous mass of humanity that, in 2008, ended with 300 racegoers in the hospital, six arrests and 126 people being ejected.
The following year, the Maryland Jockey Club prohibited fans from bringing in their own alcohol, and attendance plummeted. But since then, the fans have returned, thanks to new promotions, more of a focus on safety, and the lure of top-notch entertainment.
The new-look InfieldFest has worked so well, said MJC Vice-President of Communications Mike Gathagan, that this year, Pimlico will be bringing the vibe to Black-Eyed Susan Day. For the first time, a series of concerts will begin during the Friday races and finish up around 8:30 p.m.
“(MJC President) Tom Chuckas wanted to grow the weekend, and there's not a whole lot more we can do to fit more people here on Preakness day so the obvious choice was let's try to build up Black-Eyed Susan Day,” Gathagan said. “Bringing in the bands on Preakness day has been very successful, so that's what we're aiming to do this year. We have two country acts in there (Rachel Farley and Rodney Atkins) and then the Goo-Goo Dolls will headline.”
For the fourth consecutive year, events on Black-Eyed Susan Day will benefit the Maryland affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. There's a raffle for the chance to win a pink $6,500 John Deere Gator utility vehicle. The Lady Legends For the Cure Race featuring retired female jockeys is back, as well as a Battle of the Sexes Jockey Challenge, pitting four female riders against four males in a series of races.
“It'll be the 89th running of the Black-Eyed Susan, so we'll have 89 breast cancer survivors,” said Gathagan. “Lady Legends has been a huge success for us, a home run. Teaming up with Komen, the place is pink. It's a pretty neat day, maybe not as intense as Preakness Day.”
This year's Preakness InfieldFest on Saturday will be similar to last year's. The big-name acts will include Pitbull and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and the “MUG Club” is back, giving fans a bottomless cup of beer for one price. Not returning, however, is the beer-guzzling half-man, half-beast mascot known as Kegasus.
“Now having all these high-level bands, I think the brand is set that we don't have to go the gimmick route to get attention,” Gathagan said.
Under the Kegasus campaign, boosted by popular artists like Maroon 5, attendance climbed 12% from 2010 to 2011 and last year grew to 121,000. Infield incidents have dropped dramatically with only one person going to the hospital in 2012 and just six evictions. The edgy and controversial 2010 slogan, Get Your Preak On, returns this year, but Gathagan said the marketing push is focusing on the “pomp and circumstance” of the Preakness, and its history.
“It's more, this is a terrific event, here's all the historical things that have happened, and it's more about the history of the event than the shock value.”
In that vein, one recent promotion for racegoers gave them two Preakness drinking glasses from a previous running of the race as well as another item – for example, a Big Brown t-shirt from the 2008 event.
“That was another home run,” Gathagan said. “The marketing department couldn't believe how successful it was, but I guess if you give away free stuff, they'll come, right?”
On Derby Day, the Pimlico races featured guest “race callers” from local television stations. Not only did it provide some comical moments, it accomplished Gathagan's goal.
“I wanted to get coverage, quite frankly. I wanted them to talk about Pimlico and Preakness prior to what they consider Preakness week. I'm sure some of the old guard listening on simulcast was like, ‘what the heck is this?' But at the end of the day, it generated a lot of local interest and was successful for us.”
Gathagan said after last Saturday, at least 10 local TV personalties expressed interest in joining in the fun, so he plans to have guest announcers again next year, possibly after the Preakness so broadcasters like Jeannine Edwards, who began her TV career in Maryland, can participate.
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