BALTIMORE — The Preakness infield was set up for the usual huge crowd. The stage for ZZ Top was ready, the security guards in place and the vendors eager to hawk their beer, food and souvenirs.
Only one thing was missing: people.
The new policy prohibiting fans from bringing in their own beer severely cut into the attendance Saturday at Pimlico Race Course. Sections of the infield ordinarily jammed with teenagers, rowdy young men and scantily clad women remained completely empty. Lines at the portable toilets, concession stands and souvenir shops were nonexistent.
That might seem like a good thing to those in attendance. But many rated the new format a complete dud.
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"They need to bring back the coolers, bring back the party. There's nothing going on here," said Wallace Moore, 28, who set up his chair about 30 feet from the track. "Last year, I couldn't even find a spot to sit down. Now I've got my pick of anywhere."
Attendance at Saturday's race was 77,850 — down significantly from the 112,222 in 2008. Total handle, however, rose approximately $13 million to $86,684,470.
Moore and Anthony Cristo drove down from New Jersey for the fifth year in a row. After Cristo accidentally spilled his beer, he lamented his $3.50 mistake by saying, "If I did that last year, I'd just grab another."
The policy change was designed to create a different environment in the anything-goes infield, where fans running atop the portable toilets became stars in YouTube videos and others lobbed full cans of beer at one another. It created a sometimes-dangerous scene — one that was not particularly inviting for families or anyone without a helmet.
"It needed to change," Tom Chuckas, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said early Saturday afternoon. "We tried to reduce some of the craziness, but tradition is very difficult to change and culture is difficult to change. It's going to take a couple of years to modify that."
Belmont on the brain
As soon as Rachel Alexandra held off Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird to win Saturday's Preakness, attention turned to the Belmont Stakes.
Mine That Bird's trainer Chip Woolley said "the Belmont is next for us." Rachel Alexandra's trainer, Steve Asmussen, said he'll wait a few days before making a decision.
"Belmont looks like it could be a great matchup between those two, but I don't know who they'll get to run against them," said Larry Jones, trainer of 10th-place finisher Friesan Fire. "Those two look really good."
Plenty of contenders are lining up. Potential Belmont starters include Charitable Man, Chocolate Candy, Dunkirk, Gitano Hernando, Miner's Escape, Mr. Hot Stuff and Summer Bird.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said his Preakness runners — Flying Private (fourth) and Luv Gov (eighth) — are Belmont possibilities.
Drama at the start
Big Drama provided some major suspense Saturday when he reared in the gate and unseated jockey John Velazquez before the start of the race.
The horse eventually settled down, then kept up with Rachel Alexandra before fading to fifth.
"We broke OK after he stumbled, but he never really relaxed," Velazquez said. "He ran a good race but had nothing left in the end."