Is the new, less debauched Preakness Stakes still fun?

The stadium scene.
May 18 2009 8:22 AM

Quit Horsing Around

Is the new, less debauched Preakness Stakes still fun?

Preakness Stakes. Click image to expand.
Rachel Alexandra (center) wins the Preakness Stakes

BALTIMORE—It's the morning of the Preakness Stakes, and Derek Bowden winds up to hurl a beer can at a man running across the top of a row of porta-potties. The Bud Light sails through the air and finds its target. "Got him!" The man wobbles and falls to the ground. After a few more throws, Bowden steps back and celebrates. He just got a new high score.

This was not the infamous "running of the porta-potties," the Preakness tradition in which a brave soul scales a long row of toilets and sprints from one end to the other while the crowd pelts him with (full) beer cans. (Watch that version here.) This was a video-game simulation commissioned by the event's organizers to replace it. The interface was simple: Manipulate a roller ball to aim and push a button to throw. But the main effect of the virtual running was to make the user nostalgic for the real thing. 

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Everyone knew there would be no running this year. For the first time, the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the Preakness, was prohibiting attendees from bringing their own alcohol. Anyone who has been to the Preakness knows that's like banning sand at the beach. Guests could still buy beer for $3.50 a cup. But there wouldn't be the same spirit of keg-draining revelry that makes people start traversing urinals. Just to make sure, though, the organizers had spaced the porta-potties apart in rows of four, creating a sort of outhouse village. If you wanted to run across them, you'd have to clear a 6-foot gulf. Plus, plastic cups make lousy projectiles.

After last year's Preakness resulted in multiple medical emergencies—one guy reportedly made it all the way across the porta-potties only to hit the ground face first—Preakness organizers decided it was time for a change. (Rampant nudity and occasional violence may have also played a role.) They banned outside booze, organized activities like a women's volleyball tournament and bikini contest, and invited musical acts Buckcherry and ZZ Top. It says something about the Preakness that these were the activities introduced to keep things under control.

But the makeover came at a cost. This year's crowd wasn't just more sober; it was smaller, too. Last year's race drew 112,000 people, but this year only two-thirds of that number showed up. About 60,000 people usually pack into the infield—the area inside the track, where the debauchery has traditionally reached its height—but this year's infield crowd had elbow room to spare. (It's possible the recession also had a hand in the lower turnout, but the betting handle—the total amount wagered on the Preakness—was actually higher than usual this year.) "It used to be you couldn't move out here," said Eddie, a Baltimore native and former horse trainer who declined to give his last name for fear that "they would know who I am." By the end of the day, you'd have to step over muddy bodies to get to the exits.

"Were we disappointed in the crowd? Yes," said Mike Gathigan, a spokesman for the Maryland Jockey Club, the day after the race. "But change is difficult, and you have to take a couple of steps back to move forward."

Horse racing has fallen on hard times of late, especially in Maryland. Attendance at Pimlico, where the Preakness has been held for 134 years, is down.   A plan to legalize slot machines that would benefit Maryland race tracks has not yet produced funds. * And the company that owns Pimlico filed for bankruptcy in March, sparking talk of the Preakness leaving Maryland altogether. *

Eddie, the former trainer, who is in his 50s, theorized that the problem is that young people don't know or care about racing. "The industry hasn't done anything to promote the concept of racing to young people," he said. Gathigan disagreed, pointing to country music concerts and other Saturday events the track has held at Laurel Park and Pimlico over the last year. I asked him whether ZZ Top was a good way to attract young people. "The bottom line is ZZ Top is one of the best party bands ever," he said.

Some crowd members had suggestions for how to spice up the Preakness for a new generation of fans. "They need weapons, like gladiator-style horse races with football equipment," said Kenneth Green, 19, of Edgewood, Md., who was working security. His friend and colleague, Michael Smith, 18, had a more simple prescription: more nudity. "The volleyball thing was cool but—topless." At the very least, he said, they need better music. "Lil' Wayne isn't gonna come to no horse thing," said Green. "We need crazy people like Britney Spears."

Chad O'Brien, from Pasadena, Md., gave a succinct review of the day's proceedings: "No alcohol. No fun." His friend, Chris Day, interjected. "How many boobs have you seen today?" he asked me. Not one, I confessed. Same with him. "I saw my wife's this morning, but that doesn't count." His wife, who declined to give her name, confirmed this.

Others, however, appreciated the event's newfound refinement. "This year is so much better," said Linda Simmons of Baltimore. "It's safer, it's better." She spent most of the afternoon in the stands but came to the infield to see ZZ Top. "I'm sure the kids don't think it's better," she added. Her friend Deborah Imbach agreed. It may be hurting business in the short run, she said. "But it's the catalyst to bringing people back. I think this is a test year."

Indeed, for all the complaining, people were having fun. In one infield tent, teenagers and teenagers-at-heart jammed on Rock Band while others sampled flavored air at an oxygen bar. Each flavor had special properties, like improving wakefulness or memory. Cinnamon was supposedly a male aphrodisiac. ("I have a boner! I have a boner!" announced a young man to his girlfriend.) Brian, a teenager from New Jersey, stood in line to meet former WWF star Stacy Keibler, who was MC-ing the day's events. He has a picture of her on his locker. I asked what he'd do if he met her. "I'd be as hard as Chinese arithmetic right now," he said.

You can use market mechanisms to control alcohol consumption; regulating testosterone levels is not so easy. As such, the day was not entirely free of incident. At one point in the early afternoon, the sound of screamed epithets pierced the air. Two young men, Joe and Ken, both shirtless, were face to face, noses rubbing. Their friend, wearing a T-shirt that read "Beer Kicks Ass," recounted the backstory. He had "five-starred" Ken—the practice of slapping someone's bare skin so hard it leaves a red mark in the shape of a hand. But Ken thought it was Joe who had five-starred him. Security soon intervened. Ken explained that they were friends, it wouldn't happen again, etc.

They moseyed over to the oxygen bar, where Joe stuck a breathing tube into his nostrils. Just then, a big guy came up and—smack!—five-starred Joe on the back. Joe moved toward the assailant, seemingly unaware that his face was still connected to an oxygen tank. He was on the verge of yanking the entire oxygen apparatus off of its table, when his friends pulled him back. "Breathe," said Ken. "Breathe." The wintergreen oxygen seemed to help. Joe calmed down while his friend snapped a photo of the elevated welt forming on Joe's back. They soon went over to watch the horses.

Oh right, the horses. Every hour or so, crowds would form at the infield's outer rim to see the racers go by. But it wasn't until the last race—the one actually called the Preakness—that anyone paid much attention. Most people were rooting for Rachel Alexandra, the much-hyped filly who won the Kentucky Oaks and whose rider, Calvin Borel, had ridden Mine That Bird to victory in the Kentucky Derby.

When she came in first, the crowd's enthusiasm took many forms. "First woman since 1924, wooo!" cheered Angie Jervis of Crofton, Md., referring to the filly's historic victory. Was she going to lord it over her male friends? "Of course I am. I'm a single mom doing it on my own. Girl power!" Nearby, a girl cheered while perched on her boyfriend's shoulders. "Show us your tits!" came a yell from the crowd. She did not.

Correction,   May 22, 2009: This article originally suggested that the state's plan would install slot machines at race tracks. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, May 22, 2009: This article originally stated that the owners of Pimlico filed for bankruptcy last year. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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