What's Old Is New Again at Pimlico

D. Wayne Lukas and Hillwood Stable's Ellen Charles, recipient of the Special Award of Merit | MJC Photo


Baltimore, MD–The stage may have changed but the show remains the same. Two weeks ago, the Triple Crown train ran through Louisville, where all were treated to a sensory assault that can only be understood when experienced first-hand. With the tour moving on to Pimlico this week, there is an undeniable adjustment. It's something like comparing Taylor Swift to Courtney Love. No further explanation required. However, despite all of its shortcomings (and no, the elevator is still not working), Pimlico and the GI Preakness S. offer a charm that many other racetracks–many of them far flashier and newer–seem to lack. It's sometimes easy to forget that history can reside in the most obscure corner of any track. Case in point: a chance run-in with radio personality Steve Byk leads me to a concealed area behind the FanDuel TV set. Nestled in some weedy spot by the fence is a large wooden cross that reads 'Pimlico Barney (1960 – 1974).' According to legend (and to Steve Byk), Pimlico Barney was a dog that wandered into the track one day and was adopted by the stall man at the time, Harry Jeffra. Prior to his tenure on the racetrack, and his meeting with Barney, Jeffra made a name for himself in the ring, earning the 1937 bantamweight and 1940 featherweight championship titles en route to his induction into the Maryland Hall of Fame.

Enter Barney. According to several accounts, Jeffra and Barney made the backstretch rounds every day, stopping periodically to oversee the property's network of time clocks in addition to checking for fire code infractions. According to published reports, Barney was known on occasion to put out cigarettes with his paws (I'm just relaying published accounts, folks). The story goes that the little dog also had a penchant for 'singing', howling when the situation (including the Pimlico Fire Department's sirens) moved him. After 14 years of devoted service to Jeffra, Barney was put down due to old age. When the issue of where he was to be buried, it is suggested that Jeffra insisted the dog be buried on the backstretch because that was where he spent of most his life.

C Bossinakis

With Pimlico facing the prospect of complete demolition only a couple of years ago, the city of Baltimore and the state joined forces in an effort to save the aging racetrack and current plans call for the facility to undergo a complete overhaul over the next three years. With that in mind, I walked away from Barney's grave thinking that it's sometimes easier to focus on all the blemishes and yes, there are quite a lot of them right now. However, if one remains open and looks past the failing veneer, one is sure to catch a glimpse or two of the storied history of the place. While 'Old Hilltop' remains true to its name now (with the emphasis squarely on 'old'), the proposed rejuvenation should remind everyone why saving it was worth the effort.


Pimlico Bouncing with Activity

There can be little doubt that the announcement that early favorite Muth (Good Magic) would not contest Saturday's Preakness took the wind out of a great many sails. However, several of the remaining contenders–including Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan (Goldencents)–appear to offer enticing options as they hit the track on a sun-filled morning Thursday.

Heading to the track shortly after 8:30 a.m., the Kenny McPeek trainee jogged part way around Pimlico's track. Mystik Dan, who is the 8-5 favorite on the revised morning-line, was introduced to the saddling paddock before embarking on a light gallop under former jockey Robby Albarado.

“He's doing great,” said McPeek, who arrived in Baltimore Wednesday afternoon. “He's a pretty easy-peasy colt. He eats well. He's a real quiet horse. I've used the terminology that he's an old soul. Nothing much fazes him at all, which makes our job really easy.”

Looking ahead to race day, McPeek added, “We want a quiet day. We don't want anything complicated or any hoopla. We want to get him over there and give him his best chance. It's still not an easy race. There are no guarantees. It's a very humbling sport. Right now, we've got everything in line.”

Imagination getting a bath Thursday morning | Sara Gordon

Following his morning exertions, the unassuming bay returned as dry as when he first walked onto the track. In stark contrast, Bob Baffert's remaining half of the entry, Imagination (Into Mischief), bounced away from Pimlico's stakes barn under Humberto Gomez, snorting and dancing on his toes before returning a little more deflated, and a fair bit sweatier, than he appeared on departure. The white-haired maestro was reportedly set to arrive in Baltimore Friday.


Lukas, McPeek Regale at the Alibi Breakfast

Every year, the Alibi Breakfast offers connections and fans alike the chance to garner some insight into some of the characters who will be highlighting Saturday's second jewel of the Triple Crown. And when D. Wayne Lukas has a horse running at Pimlico, there is little one can do other than just sit back and enjoy the show when the Hall of Famer takes the stage.

“I went to [McPeek's] office the other day. He was so proud. He had just finished a jigsaw puzzle,” Lukas chided. “He said, 'Wayne look at this! I finished this puzzle in two months, and it says right on the box–2 to 4 years.'”

Lukas will try to collect his seventh Preakness with Just Steel (Justify) and recent GII Pat Day Mile winner Seize the Grey (Arrogate).

After regaling the crowd with several new jokes, in addition to a few of his most well-versed jibes, Lukas summed up his latest Preakness experience.

“It's a game of experience,” Lukas said. “You still have to have that experience of looking at these horses and reading them and knowing what to do. I feel like I haven't lost anything. I might
be a little slower on the pony, but I'm still on that horse. I'm still doing the same thing, but I do it better than I used to.”

Despite his recent flush of Classic success, McPeek still had some way to go to catch the 88-year-old horseman. However, despite the discrepancy, McPeek wasn't about to be outdone by the Hall of Fame trainer.

“I finally did something Wayne Lukas hasn't done–the Oaks-Derby Double,” he laughed. “He's won four Derbys, six Preakness and four Belmonts, do you want to tell us?” McPeek said while looking in the direction of Lukas.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, trainer Butch Reid, Jr. was the essence of humility, offering shout outs to several of the individuals who offered him a helping hand throughout his lengthy career.

Reid saddles GIII Wither S. winner Uncle Heavy (Social Inclusion), who is co-owned by Reid's older brother, Mark, a retired trainer and bloodstock agent, and the elder Reid's wife, Barbara, who bred the colt. The colt's name is Mark Reid's family nickname. The Pennsylvania-bred represents the first Triple Crown entrant for the Reid brothers.

“It's really been great,” Butch Reid said. “We've all been kind of in the business but in separate aspects of it, so for this to come together like this is really something special.”

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