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Fire Knocks Out Power at Pimlico

May 16, 1998

BALTIMORE (AP) _ The lights went out but the party wasn’t over.

Two fires, neither of them major, broke out Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, hours before the 123rd Preakness. Races continued, with Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet also winning the Preakness, but the outages hurt the betting handle.

``Obviously, it’s a tremendous disappointment to have anything impact the success of this day,″ said Karin DeFrancis, senior vice president of racing at the track. ``We appreciate the patience and understanding of our fans.″

Track owner Joseph DeFrancis estimated the loss from reduced gambling at $2 million to $2.5 million.

A record 91,122 fans attended the event beneath sunny skies and 96-degree temperatures.

The simulcast of racing to other tracks was not interrupted.

A transformer fire three blocks from the track knocked out power, halting betting in the clubhouse and part of the grandstand, but not in the infield. The fire broke out about 1:20 p.m. near the entrance to the horsemen’s parking lot, just before the fifth race, fire officials said on WMAR-TV.

About the same time, a small electrical fire in an air conditioner in the jockeys’ room sent smoke into the nearby Hall of Fame dining room, Pimlico spokesman Craig Brownstein said.

No injuries were reported.

Staircases in the four-story grandstand were pitch black for lack of emergency lighting. Air conditioning was out. Diners ate by candlelight, although fire officials told fans to extinguish the candles.

Police officers directed fans with flashlights. But a couple of jockeys who were trying to get into their room could not get through the police tape outside the track.

Some fans complained that a $5 million state subsidy to the track last year, with another $10 million budgeted this year, bought nothing more than new paint on the floor and televisions that proved worthless without power.

``Do you think in Atlantic City, because somebody three blocks away used power, the casino went down?″ asked Charles Jefferson, 61, of Baltimore.

Many betting windows in the buildings closed because of the power failure, but began to reopen after 2 p.m. Infield tellers continued to accept bets and automated machines continued to operate.

Power was restored gradually around the track throughout the afternoon.

During the outage, the races were hand-timed by Jack Herman. ABC brought in generators to provide power for televising the middle race in the Triple Crown series.

``We’re racing, come hell or high water,″ Brownstein said.

In the infield, the vast majority of fans didn’t notice the outage. But some fans waiting in long lines at closed betting windows started chanting derogatory comments about the track.

Business may have suffered at the ticket booths, but not at the bars.

``We’ve got no soda, we’ve got no beer, we’ve got no nothing,″ said Wanda Miller, a bartender. ``They’re losing millions of dollars today.″

Many in the crowd were angry, but others tried to keep a positive attitude. Robert Joslin and Don Johnson were visiting Maryland from Palo Verde, Ariz., and decided to check out the Preakness.

``We got the last two beers,″ Joslin said. ``We’re hoping we’re as lucky if we’re ever able to place bets today.″

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