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THOROUGHBRED RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : Buying Pimlico Brings History of Character(s)

January 20, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE

What Hollywood Park is getting from its imminent purchase of Pimlico Race Course is a track that throws a blanket of painted daisies over the Preakness winner every year, and calls them black-eyed Susans. The Maryland state flower, you see, is not in season in May. But everything else about the people of Pimlico and Baltimore is genuine.

In the late 1970s, I was at the races at Delaware Park with Herman Cohen, who then owned Pimlico with his brother Ben.

Herman Cohen, in his 80s, was an intrepid handicapper, and midway through the afternoon, he gave me a horse to bet.

"How much do you like him?" I foolishly asked.

"Young man," Cohen said, "if I ever liked a horse that much, I'd only have to make one bet, lifetime."

Late in life, widower Cohen remarried.

"They're looking for a house near a school," said Chick Lang, who worked as general manager for the Cohen brothers.

One day Lang and I were watching ABC's "Wide World of Sports" when the show opened with footage of a skier almost breaking his neck and an auto racer being flipped in the air after hitting the wall at a speedway.

"Reminds me of Herman Cohen, parking his car," Lang said.

One year at the Preakness, Ben Cohen was the victim of a pickpocket. It might have been the same year that someone stole the purse of the wife of Lynn Stone, the president of Churchill Downs, from a table in the Pimlico turf club. This was definitely a big year for thieves at Pimlico.

Cohen sloughed off his losses. "I'm a millionaire," he said. "Before Sonny Hine started training my horses, I was worth about five million."

After a musician named Percy Barry died in 1944, his ashes were scattered across Pimlico's racing strip. That practice was repeated by dozens of families, and in 1950, Willie Doyle, the winning jockey aboard Effendi in the 1909 Preakness, had his ashes spread across the the finish line.

In 1959, Pimlico reconfigured the track and the finish marker was moved 220 feet down the stretch. Not long afterward, Lang's phone rang. It was Doyle's widow, asking that her husband's ashes be moved to the new line. Lang didn't flinch. Pimlico held a second service in honor of Doyle.

For many years, Pimlico's publicity director was Sam Siciliano. He was accustomed to seeing female turf writers in the press box and was certain he could spot a phony who didn't belong.

"Big hats," Siciliano would say. "You see a woman up here with a big hat, and you can bet that she isn't working."

I guess Siciliano would have barred Hedda Hopper from the Pimlico press box.

Lang once gave me a tape of Clem McCarthy's thrilling radio broadcast of the 1938 match race at Pimlico, when jockey George Woolf outfoxed Charlie Kurtsinger as Seabiscuit beat War Admiral. Nine years later, McCarthy's Preakness call was not nearly as flawless. The infield crowd had been allowed to stand atop the starting gate after the race began, and when the horses reached the far turn, McCarthy's view was briefly blocked while Faultless and Jet Pilot changed positions. Their jockeys wore similar colors, and instead of Faultless, McCarthy called Jet Pilot on the lead all the way through the stretch. Faultless was the winner, and McCarthy didn't correct himself until after the race.

McCarthy recovered nicely. He had remembered that Bill Stern, doing a college football game on radio the year before, made up for having the wrong ball-carrier on a long touchdown run by saying that there was a lateral to the correct runner just before the goal line. "How do you lateral a race horse?" McCarthy said.

King Leatherbury, a Baltimore native who has won more than 30 seasonal training titles in Maryland, mostly with claiming horses, has been to the Kentucky Derby only once, with I Am the Game in 1985. Leatherbury heard about an odd press-box Derby pool and wanted to get in. The idea was to pick the last three finishers in the race, in order. Leatherbury was told that he could play, but because of ethical considerations, he wouldn't be allowed to include I Am the Game in his selections.

Leatherbury didn't win the pool and didn't have any luck in the race, either. I Am the Game finished last.

In 1980, after Codex won the Preakness, the owners of the filly he beat, Genuine Risk, appealed the outcome to the Maryland Racing Commission, which validated the finish after a three-day hearing. Some of the testimony seemed superfluous, but all of the witnesses were allowed to say what they felt they had to say. One of the Pimlico stewards spent 10 minutes explaining how he had bought his binoculars at a war-surplus store.

The owner of the Preakness winner used to keep the Woodlawn Vase for a year. The three-foot-high, 29-pound vase, recently appraised at $1 million, was designed by Tiffany and Co. in 1860. In 1953, after Native Dancer won the Preakness, Pimlico shipped the vase to Alfred G. Vanderbilt's Long Island home at Oyster Bay, N.Y. Vanderbilt, a former president of Pimlico, didn't want the responsibility of caring for the trophy, so he sent it back.

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