Despite the horses galloping with all their might just yards away, Preakness InfieldFest veteran Trevor Thomas was met with a mix of surprise and indifference each time he reminded friends that there were races throughout the day.
“Most of them have no idea there’s even additional races,” the 24-year-old Federal Hill resident said of partiers at the second leg of the Triple Crown. “I don’t know a single friend who enjoys horse races.”
In recent years, the Preakness Infield at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course has felt like a standalone concert and all-day drinking party for millennials, curiously placed next to one of the biggest horse races in the world. Even before it became a mini-music festival, the Infield was a debaucherous, bring-your-own-alcohol free-for-all, where more attention was paid to people running across the roofs of Port-a-Potties than to the horses storming down the home stretch.
But entering its 10th year on Saturday, InfieldFest will see major changes designed to bridge that generational gap. In an attempt to turn concertgoers into horseracing fans, the owners of Pimlico are creating more viewing areas with better vantage points of the races, along with easier-to-find Infield betting lounges, where ambassadors will break down how to place a wager in simple terms.
“We know there are a lot of Infield-goers that come because it’s certainly a rite of passage,” said Tiffani Steer, vice president of communications for the Stronach Group, which owns the race track. “But we also know that in order to cultivate a new generation of fans and a new generation for the sport, it’s important to connect that early experience with them.”
Engaging young people is an industry-wide challenge, said Alan Foreman, chairman of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Besides big, one-day events like the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby, horseracing is struggling to attract millenials, he said. Foreman said there are many reasons this group doesn’t come to the track, including outdated facilities and a general lack of exposure to a sport whose excitement translates best in-person. Decades before, the racetrack was a social hub, he said, but that is no longer the case.
“To socialize for three or four hours at a racetrack, it’s not something that people do today. They’re on their handheld devices,” Foreman said. “They’re involved in so many other things that didn’t occupy us while we were growing up.”
To create more race viewing areas, the Infield has made the new “megastage” its focal point, she said. Concessions and bathrooms have been placed closer to the concert area to free up more space surrounding the track. In previous years, Port-a-Potties lined the course’s back rail, which made it difficult to see any action, Steer said. Infield attendees had to find “small pockets” where they caught glimpses of the home stretch, she said, but this year, views of the race’s back stretch and finish line will be much more accessible.
“You’ll be able to see the horses running as you’re partying,” Steer said.
The Stronach Group said the improvements this year — including the new stage and changes to the Infield, among others — cost $5 million. The goal was to make the Infield feel more organized and less scattered, according to Steer.
“It was kind of messy, to be honest with you,” she said. “So what we did this year was clean it up.”
But Stronach Group officials recognize why most people buy InfieldFest tickets: the concert experience. There are significant changes there, too.
Instead of the usual two stages, the InfieldFest concert — headlined by rappers Post Malone and 21 Savage, along with the electronic music duo Odesza — will take place on a single “megastage.” Measured at 120 feet wide, 60 feet high and 40 feet deep, the stage is the largest the Infield has seen, Steer said. They hired Las Vegas’ AG Production Services, which has designed stages for music festivals including Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival, to enhance lighting and the overall production, she said.
“That will really allow the performers to shine,” Steer said.
The news is music to the ears of Post Malone fans like Andrew Hofferbert, 28, of Parkville, who said Saturday will be his first Preakness. Though he’s planning to place bets and will “keep an eye on the races,” Hofferbert said he wouldn’t have purchased tickets if it weren’t for Post Malone, the melodic rapper whose “Beerbongs & Bentleys” is No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart for the second straight week.
“My girlfriend and I had been trying to find dates in which he was going to be on tour,” Hofferbert said. “We were going to go travel somewhere to see him.”
While Steer said organizers expect the overall Preakness attendance to surpass last year’s record of 140,327, convincing the Infield audience — mostly in their 20s and there for the party — to care about horseracing is a likely uphill battle, said Ryan Clancy, a 25-year-old horseracing fan living in Federal Hill.
“I appreciate that they’re making that effort,” Clancy said. “I don’t think it’ll make that big of a difference, because you’re not going to get a bunch of extremely intoxicated people who’ve been drinking for eight hours to pay attention.”
Foreman echoed Clancy’s sentiment, adding that even a great Infield experience won’t necessarily lead to many more young fans coming back to Pimlico for races not during the Preakness.
“I’m not sure how much that experience then draws them into racing, but it’s better than nothing,” Foreman said.
Steer is much more optimistic. She said more exposure to racing will spark interest, “because once you experience an incredible day at the races, it kind of gets in your system and stays with you.”
Belinda Stronach, president and chairman of the Stronach Group, is leading the push to modernize the event because she “believes strongly that there’s a lot of hope for this,” Steer said.
“If we didn’t think there was from a business perspective, we wouldn’t be here,” Steer said. “It’s a historic event that we know we can bring into this next generation.”
MORE MIDNIGHT SUN
Best Baltimore bars 2017: Beer havens, skillful cocktails and everything in between