Kegasus Angers Many, Draws Many More

By Tim Persinko
|  Wednesday, May 18, 2011  |  Updated 2:27 PM EDT
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Preakness mascot Kegasus makes an appearance before this weekend's festivities.

Preakness mascot Kegasus makes an appearance before this weekend's festivities.

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Mention the Kentucky Derby, and images of elegant Southern grand-dames decked in extravagant hats are some of the first that come to mind.

Farther north, at Pimlico Race Course, the Maryland Jockey Club is pushing a different picture for the second leg in horse racing's Triple Crown: a nipple-pierced, beer-guzzling "manimal" named Kegasus.

Love and hate have rained down on the mascot.

"It's infantile, it's foolish, and it creates a really negative image of horse racing, Preakness and the track," Maryland state delegate Pat McDonough told the Baltimore Sun. "Why are we basing an image promotion on alcohol consumption?"

Earlier this year, when voting against state funding for Maryland's horse racing industry, McDonough said, "You can't fix stupid."

The Baltimore Health Commissioner joined in the chorus of criticism, calling the Kegasus ad campaign something for "adolescent boys."

"The star of the show isn't the beautiful horses, or the determined jockeys who ride them to glory.  Instead, we're given Kegasus, a Centaur who loves to party," Oxiris Barbot wrote in her blog. She said the ad campaign amounts to a blessing of excessive drinking.

Excessive drinking will definitely be possible at this year's Preakness. The $20 beer  mug, which can be refilled without limit, will again be featured on race day. Two 160-foot-long beer gardens will be slinging brews in the infield, with another beer garden up in the grandstand.

As for the accusation of playing towards a younger crowd? Well, the Maryland Jockey Club says that is exactly the point.

"Kegasus speaks directly to our InfieldFest demographic with his no-nonsense personality and total embodiment of a good time," said Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club when the Kegasus campaign was rolled out this spring.

Chuckas was even more blunt, speaking to the New York Times. "I've got a business to run and I have got to attract young people to our event," he said, "and we knew the elegance and grandeur of the sport was not the way to get them here."

No, the Jockey Club tried that experiment in 2009, when the excesses of so many years past finally led the organizers to ban outside alcohol from the infield.

The result? A 30-percent drop in ticket sales from the year before. Preakness organizers made a resolute swing away from puritanism in 2010, pushing a lad-centric agenda of cheap beer and cheaper tickets. A coterie of scantily clad women were dispatched to local bars to hawk tickets, a strategy being used this year as well.

The grounding of the 2011 ad campaign stands solidly in Pimlico's beer-soaked "mythos." On the  site for Kegasus, organizers write, "Kegasus is the modern heir to the coveted party goblet symbolic of the rich tradition of Pimlico mythology."

That rich tradition reached storied lows in 2007, when many captured on YouTube "the Running of the Urinals," -- drunk dudes racing on the roofs of infield Porta-Johns while being pelted by beer cans.

But despite accusations of moral turpitude, the Kegasus campaign has so far proved to be a winning horse. Tickets for this year's race, held on Saturday, are up 17 percent, the New York Times reported, and organizers are expecting 100,000 to attend.

They need the cash -- the Maryland horse racing has been on life support, propped up by state subsidies with many General Assembly strings attached.

The Pimlico race track makes as much as half of its annual earnings on the Preakness Stakes race.

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