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Beer still king in friendlier Preakness infield

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The Preakness infield used to be a beer-doused festival of mayhem.

There were more fights than races. Drunken youths sprinted over the portable toilets. Twelve-ounce cans were tossed like hand grenades.

That was before Pimlico Race Course stopped allowing fans to bring in their own beer.

Now the infield is a place where music fills the air, and where Mom and Dad can bring the kids. That might sound horrific to veterans of Preakness past, but it's precisely what Pimlico wanted to achieve.

"When we changed this after 2008, the Maryland Jockey Club and myself knew it would take three or four years to fix it," said Tom Chuckas, president and CEO of the MJC. "And we have fixed it. The crowd is upscale. They're there to have a party, they're there to have fun and not cause mayhem and harm.

"That's exactly what we want. It's still the people's party, it's a great day, and it's a lot safer than it ever was before."

There's still plenty of beer, but it's being consumed in a far friendlier environment.

Such was the case Saturday, when thousands assembled under a gorgeous, blue sky to enjoy a party that happened to coincide with the running of the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Janelle O'Donnell, 20, was set up in front of the two available stages at noon, waiting for performances by Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa. She got two tickets as a birthday gift and didn't find out until late Friday night that the event included a pretty important horse race called the Preakness

"That's like the whole idea, apparently," she said.

O'Donnell wasn't old enough to drink alcohol, so she was gripping a bottle of water. Most everyone walking through the infield, however, was carrying a neon yellow mug that could be used to get unlimited refills of beer. It was a very worthwhile $20 investment on top of the $50 ticket, but it appeared that no one was abusing the privilege.

Nick Euculano, 28, was spraying on some No. 15 suntan lotion while soaking up the scene of his second Preakness.

"I heard a lot of stories and saw the videos of those guys running on the portable toilets," he said. "I'm a little sad I didn't get down here (from York, Pa.) for those years, but a lot happier to be here under these conditions. That looked a little crazy."

Glen Strigle was wearing a shirt that read "PARTY, BET, REPEAT."

"I came in college, and it was like Animal House," Strigle said. "Now that I'm in my 40s, this is what I want."

His wife, Vanessa, made her infield debut in 2011.

"After I saw what it was like last year, I knew I could bring my kids," she said. "They're 17 and 18. They're here for the concerts."

A few of the patrons were actually there to watch the horses and place a few bets.

Bill Riley, 66, was sitting within a roped-off section at the fence with a program in his lap. He watched the horses run at the head of the stretch before viewing the finish on a huge screen.

"I got here at 7 a.m. so I could get this spot," said the New Jersey resident, who also went to the Kentucky Derby and planned on attending the Belmont.

Tim Smyth was part of a group of guys who made the trip to the Preakness part of a weekend-long bachelor party.

"Someone wanted me to go a few years ago, but I said, `Dude, I'm not into that scene,"' Smyth said. "We heard it got a lot better the last couple years, and now that we're in our 30s, we decided to come. It's great. It's smart what they did."