Six years ago, when the Maryland Jockey Club announced that a music festival would replace the decades-long tradition of Preakness BYOB infield mayhem, fans were furious. A lineup featuring shlock rockers Buckcherry and the aging ZZ Top didn’t help, and attendance at the once-packed event plummeted.

Teenage pop star Lorde headlines this year's Preakness InfieldFest. Photo by James K. Lowe.

Teenage pop star Lorde headlines this year’s Preakness InfieldFest. Photo by James K. Lowe.

But in the following years, Preakness InfieldFest has become a legitimate event in its own right, thanks to better headliners, controversial marketing campaigns (“Get Your Preak On,” anyone?) and a mythical mascot named Kegasus. Today’s news that Lorde, pop music’s brightest new star, will headline this year’s InfieldFest on May 17 is a coup for the event — and for Baltimore.

Rappers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who performed at InfieldFest last year, cleaned up at the Grammys. Lorde also came away with Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Solo Pop Performance. That’s two straight years of indie musicians who have crossed over to become mainstream stars. The Jockey Club even retired Kegasus last year, noting that the music was enough to draw crowds.

The old, boozy infield may have been a rite of passage or a summertime tradition, but by the mid-2000s it had taken a more sinister turn. People would lob full cans of beer into the air, which rained down like mortars on the sweaty, muddy masses. By 2007, they’d found a target — the Running of the Urinals, where people would try to sprint across the tops of port-a-johns while others hurled beers at them. It was really only a matter of time before someone was blinded or killed.

Each year’s InfieldFest lineup is booked by the local promoter I.M.P. Productions, which also handles the 9:30 Club, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Lincoln Theatre, and select shows at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, DAR Constitution Hall and others. While there have been questionable choices such as Pitbull and ZZ Top, I.M.P. has a great record of catching pop stars on the rise (Lorde, Macklemore, Bruno Mars).

Plenty of people complained when the Preakness infield became InfieldFest. And people still complain that all too often, big stars skip Baltimore to play Philly and D.C. But with a few years of A-list bands and larger crowds, InfieldFest has answered its critics — and is becoming a marquee annual event in its own right.


InfieldFest headliners by year

2009: ZZ Top, Buckcherry

2010: O.A.R., Zac Brown

2011: Bruno Mars, Train

2012: Maroon 5, Wiz Khalifa

2013: Pitbull, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

2014: Lorde