This Saturday is one of my favorite days in sports. Its the day that people from up and down the East Coast come to celebrate horse racing not with big hats and seer sucker suits, but with 30 packs of cheap beer and bikini tops. Yes, this wonderful event is the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
Every year, two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, people flock to Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore to see if this year the Derby winner will win again and set up a possible Triple Crown winner. This year Big Brown looks poised to blow away the competition and barring tragedy go onto win the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.
But what really makes the Preakness special is the people on the infield. This is not a high class event reserved for celebrities and red carpets. This is pure Baltimore. We take this high stakes horse race and make it accessible for everyone. You would expect nothing less from a city that celebrates stringing lights from our Washington Monument. The Preakness is an event that people return to year after year. This will be my fourth one. There's something about drinking beer in the sun all day surrounded by tons of other people while occasionally betting on the races and running into people you haven't seen in years thats just irresistible.
Several times I have said I would not go back. That 8 hours of drinking in is just too much for me. That sitting in the crowds is too overwhelming. Or that sitting in the sun for that long is just too draining. But every year some friend suggests that we go and I find myself weakening to the idea. Before I know what's happened I've bought tickets and then I'm waiting in line with beer in hand.
This is the kind of celebration that horse racing should embrace to bring back younger fans. While I know many people who have Derby Day parties, I don't know that many people who actually go to the Derby. However, the Preakness is brimming with a young potential fan base. Horse racing knows it has to change to remain a viable industry. Most people can't even name all three Triple Crown races and would be hard pressed to name a fourth high stakes race. The industry is dying and combined with the recent tragic deaths of Eight Belles and Barbaro, the sport is only looking worse.
There have been several proposals for encouraging the industry. The first big one in Maryland is slots. Yes, they will solve all the problems according the the proponents. They create revenue and will lure people back to the tracks. But racing already has gambling, so is more gambling really the answer. Maybe something fundamental in racing needs to change to bring back the audience.
Another idea that seems to be floating around recently is changing the schedule so that there is more time in between the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Horses almost never run races so close together anymore. And some say this is responsible for the lack of a recent Triple Crown winner despite several horses winning the Derby and Preakness. While this idea has many upsides, I don't really think it will help racing that much. Yes, it will probably prevent some of the injuries to the horses. And that should be the reason to make the change, not to save racing. But I don't think spacing out the races is going to create any more enthusiasm for racing, even if it does yield more Triple Crown winners. Most people don't know that horses generally don't run races that close together anymore, so I can't imagine the change would make much difference. However, a change in schedule would show that racing is willing to make changes and good faith efforts to adapt as the sport changes.
I think racing is missing out on something. Once a year they pack the track for a giant party full of young potential fans. But this chance is not capitalized on. There are no ads anywhere I remember for other future races. Even just giving a coupon for a free beer at Pimlico any day after the Preakness would probably draw a few people back. And getting them to come back once on a non Preakness day might be enough to get them excited about watching races. Other than the Preakness infield celebration, there does not seem to be any sort of appeal to young people. But if the sport wants to survive its got to start trying to appeal to us. Maybe its not so much the sport that has to change, but the atmosphere at the track. It has to do something, and getting 121,000 people at the track should be the time to start showing off these plans and changes.
If something doesn't happen soon, the Preakness might be bound for another track. And that would be a great loss for the sport, for Maryland racing, and for anyone who has ever enjoyed the infield. The upper class atmosphere might work for the Derby, but here in Baltimore, they need to make the sport feel more accessible, not more elite. And an image change can do more good than a few slot machines.