Preakness Stakes Gets New Mascot

Originally published on May 20, 2011 7:21 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

When we hear the words Kentucky Derby, we might think of over-priced mint juleps and over-sized floral hats. But The Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, is going after a slightly different image.

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CHORUS: Kegasus, Lord of the InfieldFest.

SIEGEL: Third Saturday in May, The Preakness comes to Pimlico. For some, that means sitting with their fiancee, trying not to spill Cabernet Sauvignon on your brand new khakis. But for those with a thirst for something different, there's InfieldFest. And that's where you'll find Kegasus, half man, half thoroughbred - all party manimal.

SIEGEL: Kegasus is this year's mascot of The Preakness. The 136th running of the race is set for tomorrow afternoon at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And explain to us the genesis of this Kegasus, who sounds like he might professional wrestling a little bit dainty for its tastes?

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FATSIS: Well, you know, like most borderline inappropriate marketing campaigns, Kegasus was born out of desperation. The Preakness, a few years ago, got black eye when the infield, where hoi polloi gathers for The Preakness, turned into a bacchanal - drunken men racing on tops of rows of Port-O-Potties. That went viral on YouTube. Race officials subsequently cracked down. They banned people from bringing their own beer to the race and attendance plummeted.

So The Preakness hired an ad agency to try to make The Preakness hip again. Last year the theme was Get Your Preak On - a play on get your freak on. And I'll let you look that up on Urban Dictionary, Robert.

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FATSIS: And now comes Kegasus, your bearded, beer-gutted party manimal.

SIEGEL: Sounds like they're making the best of a bad thing. Is the approach working?

FATSIS: Well, $20 all-you-can-drink beer mugs, bikini contests, music by Bruno Mars. Ticket sales are up 17 percent this year over last year, and total attendance is expected to be over a hundred thousand.

Now, critics say the Kegasus campaign promotes underage and unsafe drinking; it's demeaning to Triple Crown event. But the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the race, says it's just acknowledging that The Preakness is a party destination, and that The Preakness needs to generate revenue in a sport that's lost popularity. The Jockey Club's two tracks in Maryland, Pimlico and Laurel Park, lost more than $26 million combined in 2008 and 2009.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about the other animals we'll be seeing tomorrow - the horses. The favorite is Animal Kingdom, the winner of the Kentucky Derby. And as we always know, the allure of The Preakness is seeing whether the horse that won the Derby will win the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

FATSIS: And that's what the horse-racing industry is rooting for. Animal Kingdom is trying to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

If it wins the Preakness, there would be two weeks of nonstop media leading up to the Belmont Stakes in New York. And when that happens, the attention is huge.

You think of Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004. Animal Kingdom is the latest darling. He went off at around 20 to one in the Kentucky Derby. The odds at the Preakness, he's the favorite, two to one.

SIEGEL: From 20 to one to two to one. What, apart from his winning the Derby, what changed?

FATSIS: Well, I think most handicappers and horseracing watchers just didn't know much about Animal Kingdom before the Kentucky Derby. He had raced only four times total, never raced on dirt. So it really was a coming out party. And from what I've read, Animal Kingdom is very good at coming from behind in races, and he did that in the Derby, won by a dominating two and three-quarter lengths.

The pace at Churchill Downs in Kentucky was historically slow. Preakness is expected to be faster because of the entry of a couple of new horses. Most riders, though, seem to be on the Animal Kingdom horsewagon. They predict he'll finish strongly while the other horses wither.

The other school of thought, though, is that he might not have the kick left if the fast early pace materializes.

SIEGEL: Sounds like it's going to be a fun weekend. Thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. And you can follow him on Twitter at stefanfatsis. You can follow us on Twitter, as well, at npratc. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.