03/19/2010 12:00AM

Lang was anything but undercover


ARCADIA, Calif. - There's a show knocking around on reality TV these days called "Undercover Boss," which puts a top executive in the trenches and behind the scenes of his or her own company, many times with enlightening results. Churchill Downs and its COO Bill Carstanjen were featured last week. The format can be entertaining - the show has been renewed - and the bosses have been good sports for giving it a shot.

Chick Lang, who died on Thursday, never would have been a candidate for an episode, though, since he was anything but undercover and was the kind of racetrack boss everybody knew by sight. Also, at one time or another, Lang had done most of their jobs for real. At minimum wage.

This in itself did not make Lang special. What he did with the experience, however, was carve out a unique place among racetrack operators, one that applied the lessons of the trenches to the executive suite. As general manager of Pimlico and Laurel, he was a tireless, cheerleading advocate, with an old-fashioned style based on loyalties and personal relationships, doing business and playing hardball politics in a tough town, where you've got to be able to hit the curve.

It is not customary for a former jockey's agent like Lang to become a racetrack general manager. This is not to disparage either profession, and when examined more closely there may be an overlap. Bill Thayer, Lang's close friend, also made the leap.

"When he had Bill Hartack and I had Johnny Adams, we rented a house near Washington Park, then we'd moved over near Arlington when that meet opened," Thayer said this week. "Who did the cooking? Nobody. We ate out."

Lang was 83, Thayer turns 84 on April 21.

"Later, when I became general manager of Arlington Park and Washington Park, Chick called me up and said, 'I want to give you some advice,' " Thayer went on. " 'Give the people what they want, take care of the horsemen and the public, and the rest of the pieces will fall into place.'

"I also learned from him, from when we were living together, don't ever take a nap during the day, because there will be days when you can't take that nap, and you're gonna feel like hell," Thayer added. "When he retired, they had a big party for him in Baltimore. People came from all over the country. Must have been 700 people there."

In the years following his retirement from the Maryland Jockey Club, Lang was still recognized as Mr. Preakness, wearing a fishing vest covered with press pins, steadfast as the man who refused to knuckle under to the dominant role of the Kentucky Derby. He held forth on a local radio show and continued to be a dedicated scout for young riding talent, the stars of the future. Lang also was instrumental in the promotion of the popular All-Star Jockeys event at Lone Star Park, featuring, not so coincidentally, many of the riders he had nurtured in their early Mid-Atlantic years.

"He'd spend every afternoon watching TVG and HRTV," Thayer said. "Toward the end, I think he finally gave up. But I talked to him the day before he died and he sounded great."

Thayer said Lang's wishes were to be cremated and his ashes spread at Pimlico. This makes sense, although there are any number of racetracks that should welcome such a dusting. And never mind the headstone. Chick Lang stories will keep his memory alive.

"Years ago, I was assistant trainer to Henry Forrest when he trained Tim Tam, and Chick had Hartack, who was riding first call for Calumet," Thayer said. "We had a 2-year-old filly named Quail Egg run at Keeneland. We're standing there watching the race and Chick says to me, 'That jock had her in everybody's pocket but yours. I want to ride her.' I told him we'd run her back at Churchill and he'd be on her.

"So I did and put Hartack on her in a race the week before Hartack was riding Tim Tam in the Derby," Thayer said. "What happens? She flips in the gate and breaks his leg, and Tim Tam wins, which could have been six Derbies for Hartack. Chick didn't hold it against me. But he never let me forget, either."

Owner, veteran Belles dies at 90

Anyone who wanted to save the 10 weeks required to view "The Pacific," HBO's saga of World War II, could have spent the afternoon at some point over the past 60 years or so with Harry Belles instead.

Belles was the father of Sandra Manzi and therefore father-in-law of the late Joe Manzi, trainer of 1982 champion 2-year-old Roving Boy, among many others. Belles also was a die-hard fan who loved the racing scene, so much that he stepped up as part owner of the colt Masterful Advocate, winner of the 1987 San Rafael Stakes and second that season in the Santa Anita Derby. Masterful Advocate took Belles and partners to the Kentucky Derby, where he finished 12th to Alysheba.

Such a defeat was not terribly upsetting to an old sailor who, during the Pacific campaign, had a piece of the battles of Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and Leyte Gulf. Belles would recall the odd war story with matter-of-fact detail, figuring that he wasn't doing anything millions of others weren't ask to do. It was just a job. A very hard job.

Belles was 90 when died on March 7, in Anderson, S.C., where he had resettled with his daughter. Befitting his status as a veteran, retiring with a rank of chief warrant officer, his ashes will be inurned at Arlington National Cemetery, just down the interstate from Pimlico.