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Preakness Becoming a Race to the Bottom

"Kegasus" perpetuates the best of intentions gone bad.

Preakness Becoming a Race to the Bottom

They’re running a horse race today at Pimlico, a famous one called the Preakness Stakes, which involves huge money and 136 years of exhilarating history. But not so you’d notice it by the marketing techniques alerting everybody that the track’s open for business and pleasure.

Billboards around the Baltimore metro area show a half-man, half-horse character based on the mythological creature Pegasus. But this guy’s called Kegasus. As in keg of beer, get it? On one billboard, the caption reads, “We too have a dress code: Underwear is encouraged.”

On the Maryland Jockey Club’s web site, this Kegasus character - “lord of the infield,” he’s been dubbed - urges spectators to “be legendary.”

There was a time when we counted on the magnificent horses and their jockeys pounding toward the finish line to create legends – not spectators, who were there to watch and to wager. But that was a different era, back when thoroughbred horse racing was known as the sport of kings. As everyone knows, royalty’s not what it used to be.

The new advertising pitch is a signal to the thousands who watch from the Pimlico infield: It’s OK to let go of your inhibitions.

As if they needed encouragement.

For years, the Preakness infield has looked like the best of intentions gone bad. Partly, it’s the titanic amounts of alcohol consumed, and the inevitable behavior that follows. Partly, it’s stuff like the guys holding up their big hand-lettered signs urging young ladies to “Show Us Your (Bleeps.)”

It starts out as a party, and then some kid’s getting his front teeth knocked out. You walk through parts of this crowd and imagine the end result of generations of in-breeding.

The thinkers at Pimlico know this. That’s why, a few years ago, they stopped letting fans bring their own alcohol to the Preakness. Something had to be done. Even squadrons of cops couldn’t control the infield.

The problem was, attendance dropped 30 percent – from 112,222 fans in 2008 to 77,850 in 2009.

In modern thoroughbred horse racing parlance, this is known as a catastrophe.

For Pimlico, Preakness Day is life itself. It’s the air that sustains the entire racing industry in Maryland. It’s the one day of the year that shows a profit, and thus bankrolls the rest of the business.

And so we have this year’s marketing pitch, with this guy Kegasus, named for a keg of beer, inviting everyone to “be legendary.”

“Kegasus speaks directly to our InfieldFest demographic,” Tom Chuckas, the Maryland Jockey Club president, says on the Preakness web site. “By launching a robust social media presence and appearing at downtown bars, Kegasus will have the opportunity to interact directly with his fans and get them excited about this year’s InfieldFest.”

The good news? Ticket sales are reportedly up, and officials anticipate a crowd topping  105,000. The bad news? Are they coming to watch a horse racing, or to unzip the last of their inhibitions for a few drunken hours?

Look, nobody’s arguing against a good time at Pimlico. The track’s part of our sporting history, part of our state culture, part of our blood. It’s also a business that provides livelihood for thousands of people across the state.

What’s sad is that they’re pitching this great race not as sporting history but as an opportunity to cut loose, and we’ll figure out a way to clean up the mess afterwards. It feels kind of desparate.

And, face it, it is.

There was a time when Pimlico didn’t need 100,000 people at the Preakness – and didn’t draw them. You go back to the 1950s, and they were content to draw 35,000 people. But they were also drawing nice crowds on the rest of their racing dates. Those days are gone.

Now there’s talk of moving the Preakness from Saturdays to Sundays. The thinking is: all these out-of-towners arrive Friday for a weekend at the track – but they leave town immediately after the race. Let them continue to arrive Friday – but stick around for an extra day.

Those against the idea mention religious complications. Sunday’s a day of worship for many people.

Of course, the Orioles play on Sundays. The Ravens play on Sundays.

The complication? Horse racing’s all about wagering.

Yeah, right. Like nobody ever placed a bet on the Ravens.

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