BALTIMORE — The best thing about paying for an endless supply of beer is that it doesn't matter if you spill a cup.
Enticed by the prospect of refilling their souvenir beer mugs from morning until dusk, thousands flocked to the Pimlico infield Saturday for the Preakness.
One year ago, after Pimlico officials ended the practice of allowing fans to bring their own beer to the event, no longer were fans in danger of getting hit by flying, filled cans.
But who comes to a party where there's a limited supply of beer? Not many, judging by the vast empty spaces in an infield that used to be overrun with people.
Fans still can't tote their own beer, but this year they were given the option of spending an extra $20 to have an unlimited supply of cold brew.
Most patrons made their purchase in advance. The sale of the mugs was halted at 11,000, leaving those fans arriving after 9 a.m. out of luck.
Which is why, after accidentally dropping his $3 beer, Cliff Chialastri acted as if he had fumbled a Faberge egg.
"That was a tragedy," he said.
Chialastri attempted to buy the all-you-can-drink mug at the door, but was told they sold out.
"I guess it's like an exclusive club," he said.
In a way, he was right. Only those with the 16 ounce red mugs were allowed in each of three beer tents in the infield. The lines were fairly long, except at the tent farthest from the entrance to the infield, where Michele Michael waited for about 60 seconds before getting her second refill around 10:30.
"I didn't come last year because all the rules changed," Michael said. "I liked that you couldn't get hit in the head with a beer, but we didn't have a good option. I like this a lot better."
The free refills – combined with racy commercials with the theme "Get Your Preak On" – resulted in a noticeable increase in attendance in the infield.
John Hinegardner brought his 13-year-old son Zach. The elder Hinegardner said he had been coming to the Preakness since he was 16, and this was the first time he came with his kid.
"Two years ago, I was sitting next to a girl who got hit with a beer can and broke her nose," John said. "I wouldn't have brought my son if it was still like that. I still had to talk my wife into it, but here he is. He can watch the horses, and he loves the band."
The Zac Brown Band performed at one of the three stages set up in the infield. There was also a beach volleyball exhibition, and, of course, plenty of betting windows and large-screen TVs showing the races.
Most of all, there was beer again. Lots and lots of beer.
"Why would I come last year? There was no draw," said Tim Powers of Baltimore. "This is a step in the right direction."
Drew Murphy, who was among a group of eight on the backstretch, said, "We've given up dodging beer cans. It's all about the red cups."
For two ladies in their 50s, the Preakness infield was all about Jell-O vodka shooters. Their gelatinous mixture was inspected at the gate, then waved through. Maybe it was because the elderly friends included fruit in the mold and looked as if they would never do anything as dastardly as smuggling alcohol into the track.
They also had no use for those coveted red mugs.
"We figured if we drink seven beers at $3 a beer, we don't have to," one said.