Preakness ticket sales down 12%

Daily Record Business Writer
April 23, 2009 5:31 PM

With just over three weeks to go, ticket sales for the Preakness Stakes — Maryland racing’s biggest moneymaker — are down 12 percent, according to the Maryland Jockey Club.

While some blame the economy, others say the new policy banning outside alcohol and other beverages from the infield may be playing a part, despite the fact that the ticket price has not increased for the May 16 race.

“I think it’ll be fine, but they might suffer from that a little bit,” said Lee Corrigan, of Elkridge-based Corrigan Sports Enterprises, who is organizing the InfieldFEST event. “It’s a tough year and financial market to be doing what they’re doing, but I think they had to for many reasons.”

The recession has also put a strain on racetrack attendance figures, as it has for other sporting events around the country.

“It’s hit this market just like any other,” said Christopher Scherf, president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America in Elkton. “You just have to look at the new Yankees and Mets stadiums and look around at all the empty seats.”

While a spokeswoman said the National Thoroughbred Racing Association doesn’t track attendance, figures from the British Horseracing Authority show total attendance at tracks there fell 10 percent during the last three months of 2008.

In the U.S., Scherf said race track attendance has similarly struggled since October.

“It used to be thought that gambling was immune to recession, and that’s just not true, and you’re seeing it in Las Vegas and in Atlantic City,” he said.

As a result, some tracks are introducing new marketing initiatives to attract more crowds. Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby will run next weekend, is opening three sessions to night racing for the first time during its spring meet. In California, Santa Anita Park ran a Free Fridays promotion that offered free general admission and box seating with $1 concessions that gave its winter/spring meet a 1 percent attendance bump.

In Baltimore, Pimlico Race Course will also be home to a new look on Preakness Stakes day with an infield featuring a concert by ZZ Top and other bands, a beach volleyball tournament and other adult attractions.

Corrigan said the alcohol-induced melee that marked the infield celebrations of the past posed safety and PR issues for the jockey club, which had been considering changes to the event for the past few years. He also noted that by making fans buy drinks in the infield, the club will have a boost to that revenue stream even if ticket sales are down.

“They left a lot of money on the table over the years by not selling those people a Bud Light and a Black-Eyed Susan,” Corrigan said.

Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment.

However, he said this week that the bankruptcy of Magna Entertainment Corp., the owner of the race and Pimlico and Laurel race tracks, and the political reaction to it has taken a toll on both tracks.

“Right now our focus is on Pimlico and the Pimlico meet and we’ll have to see what transpires with the bankruptcy after that,” he said.

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