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Preakness officials expecting attendance gains

Coming on the hooves of a record-breaking attendance at the Kentucky Derby, organizers of Baltimore’s Preakness Stakes are hoping for some of the same luck — without having to rub any horseshoes.

Ticket sales for the 136th running of the Preakness, which will be Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, are up 16 percent compared with the corresponding time last year, Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas said.

After two years of down attendance figures because of a lagging economy and infield rule changes, Preakness organizers are optimistic this year will be the return to pre-recession levels. Preakness attendance last year was about 95,000, but event organizers expect that to grow to between 105,000 and 110,000 this year.

Attendance dropped significantly in 2009 after a ban was instituted on spectators bringing their own alcohol.

That year, attendance fell 30 percent to 77,850, after 2008’s race drew 112,222. It was the smallest crowd for Preakness in more than 25 years and fell below 100,000 for the first time in nine years.

In Louisville, Ky., a record 164,858 fans watched Animal Kingdom win the first leg of the Triple Crown on May 7.

“With the changes we made, we recognized the fact it would take a period of time for it to work, to make different entertainment in the infield,” Chuckas said.

To make up for the dearth of free-for-all alcohol the past couple years, event organizers added big music acts, like ZZ Top, Zac Brown Band and O.A.R. with the help of Bethesda promoter I.M.P., and activities like beach volleyball, an oxygen bar area and a beer garden. The numbers have been inching up, but this is the year when attendance is expected to come back to pre-ban levels.

After last year’s race, Chuckas said organizers conducted a survey of people who watched the race from all different areas to get insight from all demographics at the event. The survey asked for what attendees enjoyed at the event and what could be improved. As a result, the Preakness will have more space in the corporate village area this year, as well as more tellers to take wagers and a bigger diversity of food and beverage.

“We’ve taken to heart what was said,” Chuckas said. “We restructured some things for a better flow.”

The Preakness will still have popular music acts this year — the contemporary group Train and singer Bruno Mars are the headliners.

Organizers also stirred up attention with a campaign for the infield that touted a beer-drinking centaur, Kegasus.

The changes have paid off. The 516 luxury Turfside Terrace seats, which cost $295 for Preakness Day and $350 for both Friday and Saturday, were sold out by Thursday. The seats give fans a close view of the finish line from the infield, as well as lunch, parking and access to bars, TV monitors and betting windows not available to the rest of the crowd.

Clubhouse Box and Grandstand Apron Box seats for both days, which cost $135, are also sold out, according to the event’s website.

Grandstand prices range from $75 to $105, while infield admission cost $40 until Monday, and $50 until the day of the race.

Another potential move to increase attendance could be moving the event to Sunday from Saturday. The Florida Derby was moved from Saturday to Sunday this year as part of a weekend of racing at Gulfstream Park. Chuckas said he had an informal conversation about the idea with Mike Rogers, a vice president of the racing and gaming division of MI Developments Inc., the majority stakeholder in the Maryland Jockey Club.

“They were very successful, and we were all pleased with it,” he said. “It’s fair to say that everything’s on the table to be analyzed and we’re going to research the potential of moving it.”

Keeping the Preakness a strong event economically and as a representation of Maryland is crucial for the horse racing industry, said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic development at the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore.

“There are lots of people employed in that sector,” Clinch said. “And with the increase of purses in Delaware and West Virginia, we’ve had a lot of activity leaving this state. I think the focus needs to be on keeping it here and helping the horse racing industry.”

The other industries that glean money from Preakness weekend are bringing in more customers than last year.

Tom Cook, general manager of the Radisson at Cross Keys, said all of the hotel’s 147 rooms are booked Thursday through Saturday this year, and on Sunday occupancy is at 65 percent.

Room rates range from $161.10 to $249 per night that weekend.

“We are kind of blessed because of our location to the track,” Cook said. “We have a lot of jockeys and owners stay with us.”

In anticipation of the large influx Thursday, guests who check in will be offered Black-Eyed Susans — the traditional drink of the Preakness — and mint juleps, while VIP guests will get specially designed blankets to take to the infield. A celebration will be held in the hotel’s lobby Saturday night, complete with a band, Cook said.

Under Armour Inc. executives use the event as a way to do business and entertain partners, and will again be throwing a party at Tark’s Grill in Lutherville. But this year’s party is going to be bigger, said owner Bill Shriver.

Last year the restaurant served more than 800 people over Preakness weekend, but this year Shriver expects the restaurant to be even busier because of larger corporate parties. The restaurant seats 225 inside and about 80 in its outside dining area.

Shriver said so long as the weather holds up for Preakness weekend, all 80 of his employees will be on their feet constantly.