Sometimes, the stories just walk right into you. Two years ago, half to get out of the rain and half to follow trainer Bob Baffert as American Pharoah attempted to win the Preakness Stakes, I stood in Pimlico’s paddock – and a story walked right into me.
“Mounted unit, coming in,” bellowed a Baltimore City police officer as six draft horses stepped in out of an intensifying storm. Fifty or so racing and media people, clustered around Baffert and a small television monitor near the door, made a path. The horses lumbered in, massive hooves echoing around the room, turned to their right and backed into the saddling stalls where American Pharoah and several others stood just a few minutes earlier.
Then there was silence. The paddock crowd clustered together around that tiny television again as the horses stood like statues with big shoulders, big heads and big burdens. They seemed of another time – wiser than the Thoroughbreds there that day, placid yet ready for whatever duty presented itself as the rain continued to lash Pimlico.
A few weeks earlier, it seemed half of Baltimore was an angry storm in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
Gray was arrested April 12 and needed medical attention by the time he got to police headquarters. He died April 19 and whether you’re a police officer or simply a citizen, the aftermath was shocking. There were protests, riots, looting, charges against the officers. People threw bricks at police, set fires, burned a CVS store to the ground, fought each other, ransacked cars, set a community center on fire. National Guard troops were called in. Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency. The Orioles played a home game with no fans. The city ordered a curfew.
The police horses and their riders at the Preakness that day were part of it all. They worked crowd control, providing an elevated vantage point for officers. There’s a YouTube video showing the horses walking resolutely behind a line of officers in riot gear staring down an angry crowd.
Had it all occurred three weeks later, the Preakness of 2015 may not have happened, or may have been moved to Laurel Park or who knows what. Maybe that’s over-hyping it or giving the whole thing too much credit, but maybe not. Three weeks before the Preakness, traffic heading south on I-83 toward Baltimore from just north of Pimlico was met by a wave of northbound police cars on a Saturday afternoon. The city, at least one of its major entrance points, was closed.
Freddie Gray lived at and was arrested at Gilmor Homes, a housing project in West Baltimore less than 5 miles from Pimlico. Again, change the date of all of this by 20 days and how prudent would it have been to host a sporting event with 130,000 people in attendance? Thankfully, that question didn’t have to be asked.
But back to the horses. I remember thinking about everything those stoic animals had seen in the weeks leading to the Preakness. I wondered what they thought of it all. I wanted to know more. Where were they stabled? What kind of work did they do? The goodwill tasks, witnessed at Pimlico every year, must be worth millions alone. People flock to those horses, just to touch them and say hello. There’s something about a horse – especially a big, powerful one who lets you scratch his nose or feed him a carrot while he’s working. If you’re angry, chances are you’ll be less angry after encountering Porter or Blair, Vernon or Hercules, Big D or Pax.
So two years after Freddie Gray and American Pharoah and a thunderstorm for the ages, the mounted unit’s story is in this magazine. Writer Sandy McKee met the horses and the officers, got a feel for why they do a dangerous job and what it takes to do it. There are no Thoroughbreds on the force, but there are plenty of racing connections. This is Maryland after all, where everyone seems to be one or two degrees of separation from the racetrack.
McKee called the mounted unit –
where officers decline promotions just to stay with the horses – a love story. Maybe she’s right. Read it and decide for yourself. I’m just glad they walked into me on a rainy day in Baltimore.