Updated on 09/16/2011 7:22AM

Sweet memories of a Pimlico boy grown up


WASHINGTON - As a boy growing up near the Pimlico racetrack, where the 127th Preakness will be run Saturday, I never saw a Preakness. But I cannot count all the days I spent at Pimlico. My father always took me on weekdays when he had "room to think," never on a day when 35,000 or 40,000 people were sure to be there. Yet the track always seemed crowded to me, with men wearing suits and hats jammed together in the sun between the grandstand and the rail.

We spent miserably cold, gray days at the races, too, but those were at Bowie in the winter. Babe Ruth took Ziegfeld Follies star Fannie Brice to the Bowie races. What could The Babe have been thinking?

The Pimlico neighborhood was known as "the most famous suburb of Baltimore," even though it was in the city. The track, as I sized it up from my father's side at the rail, was everything sports was meant to be. Up close, the colors of the jockeys' silks dazzled. I understood the meaning of the word horsepower. Odgen Nash wrote a poem, "All Roads Lead to Pimlico."

Racing was Maryland's sport. (From it derived the name of the football team, the Colts.) Red Smith wrote tenderly of the long-gone track at Havre de Grace, "The Graw," of coming down from New York on the train, of being able to look out from the press box at the seamlessly merging waters of the Susquehanna and the Chesapeake Bay.

My grandfather played the horses every day, never leaving his stuffed chair in his living room except to place his bets for the day with a bookie a half-block away. Then my grandfather would listen all afternoon to the ornate wooden radio next to his chair as WITH brought the up-to-the-minute results from tracks around the country. Late in the day, sometimes, he'd take me along as he made his second trip down the street, to collect. Back home, he'd take his shot glass from the kitchen cupboard and open the bottle of rye.

The one day my father ignored a huge crowd and went to Pimlico was for the track's, and perhaps the sport's, most famous race, the arranged match between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. It was not a Preakness, it was the 1938 Pimlico Special. Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" relates that day, and the saga leading up to it, so exquisitely I think of my father (and the work she put into the book) as I read and re-read it. Would my father have bet the turf aristocrat War Admiral? Never. As much as he admired such Triple Crown winners, he preferred the "value pick," not the "chalk." The odds on War Admiral were 1-4, the humble 'Biscuit 2-1. Seabiscuit's return of $6.40 for $2 wasn't my father's kind of payoff, but that wasn't the point that day; it was about the Cinderella horse that got home first. It was about love.

It's easy to fall in love with a great horse or thrill to an unlikely champion. In my grandfather's living room, where the extended family gathered on Sunday nights, conversations often got around to Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner, and Whirlaway, who won the Triple in '41 - both with jockey Eddie Arcaro, who was revered.

Sunday night talks ranged deep into the misty past to Exterminator, the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner. He gave people plenty of time to fall in love with him, racing 100 times. Exceptional horses are lucky if they run 10 times any more. They are too valuable on the breeding farm, or they are too fragile to endure at the track.

Three years ago, Charismatic gained attention with upset victories in the Derby and the Preakness. A Triple Crown probably would have sealed a love between the public and the horse. It would have placed him in a distinguished line of Triple Crown winners behind the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since the 1970's. Charismatic was appealing. He had been a claimer. When he suffered a broken bone in the Belmont, he was fortunate to survive and had to be retired. Taken from the public's sight, he dropped from its consciousness.

Some horses, though, never will be forgotten. Consider Kelso. Or Ruffian.

For more than 100,000 Saturday, all roads will lead to Pimlico. At least some of the track's regulars will battle the mob. Pimlico always has been about the working stiff and his modest bets. An unlikely source found that to be true at the 1970 Preakness. "The disposition of the people at the bar was nice," the comedian Flip Wilson said. But he found "the crowd was surprisingly unruly at the $2 window."

This Saturday, people will get their money down on War Emblem because he is the only Triple Crown possibility this year. I know my father would want to see a Triple Crown winner, but I also can hear him explaining why he bet something else. And it would be discussed Sunday night when the family gathered. Horse racing, I learned as I listened those nights, was about the thrill of picking a winner - and more. It was about the majesty of great horses. It was about love.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post