(First published in Thoroughbred Times Today on May 20, 2011)
I first visited Pimlico Race Course in the spring of 1969, while attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. Two weeks previously, Braulio Baeza on Arts and Letters had allowed Bill Hartack on Majestic Prince to get first run on him in the Kentucky Derby and beaten him a neck.
Arts and Letters was drawn outside Majestic Prince in the Preakness, so Baeza's and trainer Elliott Burch's plan for the Preakness was to stay lapped on him and not let Majestic Prince get away. That plan fell apart in the first strides when Al Hattab swerved into the *Ribot colt, knocking him further behind than in the Derby.
Arts and Letters again rallied determinedly in the stretch, but still fell a head short at the wire. The Rokeby Stable colt got his revenge three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes, and raced on undefeated through the rest of the year to earn Horse of the Year, but my first experience of the Preakness was not a happy one.
Pimlico in 1969 was a rather ramshackle old place. The historic Member's Clubhouse had burned three years previously and the Maryland Jockey Club was still two years away from remodeling the grandstand.
My third trip to the Preakness (I saw Personality win in 1970 as well) in 1995 was no better, if not worse. Minutes after pulling into the parking lot of the motel that Thoroughbred Times's Los Angeles-based travel agent had chosen, I was mugged at gunpoint before I could get my room door unlocked. Not a good way to begin Preakness week.
Three years later, things got even tougher when an overloaded electrical transformer at the track exploded, blacking out most of the grandstand, including the press box. I am all for exercise and physical fitness, but sprinting up and down four flights of stairs between races is not my idea of fun. Even before that potentially disastrous incident 13 years ago, many critics had pointed out that the ancient, dilapidated grandstand needed to be bulldozed and replaced. Cosmetics aside, not much has been done since.
I must admit, though, that my most recent (and quite possibly last) visit in 2005 to the rather disheveled old lady on Park Heights Avenue made up for some of the indignities Pimlico has visited upon me. Seeing Afleet Alex pick himself up off his knees at the top of the stretch and win the Preakness by seven lengths remains one of the most remarkable displays of agility, ability, and determination I have ever seen.
It is a short drive along Northern Parkway from the Hopkins campus in the Homewood area of Baltimore to Pimlico, but even in 1969 the two neighborhoods were worlds apart. Then as now, Homewood is stately, tree-sheltered homes for the upper-middle class; Pimlico is bordered by working-class apartment buildings and businesses. Kegasus is not really that out of place in the Pimlico neighborhood.
Like the rest of the world, Baltimore itself is a far different place in 2011 than it was in 1969. The Inner Harbor area, now home to museums, upscale shops, and the ESPN Zone was then known as “the Block”, an ominous euphemism for an area dominated by mob-owned strip joints and bars.
If the Block was not a place that a naïve farm boy from Tennessee was likely to visit, perhaps Pimlico was only slightly more probable for a kid who had not yet decided what to do with his life. Only a couple of hours away in Upperville, Virginia, though, was Rokeby Stud, Paul Mellon's idyllic estate where Arts and Letters and a host of other top racehorses had been born and raised.
If Pimlico was not quite charming and classy enough to lure a young, romantic idealist away from the halls of academe, Rokeby was. The dreams born of visits to Rokeby and Pimlico live on in the heart of this 64-year-old curmudgeon.
In the spring an old man's fancy still turns to Black-Eyed Susans. The old lady in Baltimore is in need of something much more than a face lift, but she is worth saving. If only we can find the will and the way to do it.