In spring 1893, Geneva College defeated New Brighton YMCA 3-0 in the nation’s first college basketball game, the World’s Fair opened in Chicago, Thomas Edison unveiled the kinetoscope, an early motion-picture device, and Baltimore endured life without a Preakness. All these years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, economic devastation and (as of late May and early June) civil unrest, history repeated itself. Spring came and went in Baltimore without a Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. And life went on, more or less.
Trainers and stable staff cared for horses who didn’t race. Owners lived with updates via telephone or computer. Racing fans stayed home. Maryland Jockey Club employees were furloughed. Temporary jobs in security, concessions, parking, hospitality and the mutuel department went unfilled. Everybody watched the calendar, with the only good news coming from a May 16 announcement that 2020 would not be a repeat of 1893, when the Preakness didn’t happen at all.
Scheduled for Oct. 3, the 145th Preakness Stakes will complete the Triple Crown – following the Belmont Stakes June 20 and the Kentucky Derby Sept. 5 – after decades of being the second step of the historic Thoroughbred series.
Official word came on NBC television, via a joint announcement by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland Jockey Club executive Belinda Stronach. Beyond them, the news brought relief, joy, something to anticipate.
“There’s going to be a Derby, there’s going to be a Preakness,” said Maryland Jockey Club announcer Dave Rodman, who called his first Preakness in 1991. “If we had a Derby winner, but then couldn’t have a Preakness that would have been far worse. Everyone is anxious to see what’s going to happen, but we have something to look forward to.”
When racing was shut down at Laurel Park in March, Rodman was furloughed and went 10 weeks without calling a race. Like most, he stayed home. He cleaned. He organized. He tried to exercise. He didn’t really go anywhere. He worried about the future. He wondered if he’d be rusty (racing returned to Laurel Park May 30 and wasn’t).
Track photographer Jim McCue, whose first Preakness came in 1971, didn’t capture finish-line drama or winner’s circle smiles for those same 10 weeks. Fresh out of the Army for his first Preakness, he saw Venezuela’s Canonero II win, took photos of Secretariat two years later, focused on Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed/Alydar in 1978, Deputed Testamony for the locals in 1983, American Pharoah in the rain in 2015, Justify in the fog in 2018. But, in 2020, he waited.
“I’m bored, like everybody else,” he said a few days before what was supposed to be Preakness Day. “I’m really into reading. I read about history, World War II and that kind of stuff. If people would read what these guys went through at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and things, they might have a different outlook.”
Mike Singletary, the MJC’s director of security, doesn’t quite go back as far as McCue but has been a part of the Preakness for 30 years. Then a guard with the state Department of Corrections, he took a part-time job working security at Pimlico during Preakness Week. The shifts provided extra money, a chance to be part of something big and the camaraderie of working on a team. Now, he heads that team – 300 officers, 22 supervisors, dozens of outside contractors and plenty more. When the Derby winner arrives, Singletary is there. When the NBC trucks roll in, Singletary is there. He was even at Pimlico this May, albeit just for short visits to check on his staffers.
“It’ll make me cry maybe,” he said of seeing Pimlico on Preakness Day without a Preakness. “I’ll stop up and see my staff Saturday morning and then go on to Laurel. We run around-the-clock security so I’m there regularly, but this will be different. I just might take a little longer look. I’ll walk out to the winner’s circle and take a look across the racetrack for a moment or two.”
Last year, outrider Kaymarie Kreidel and her horse Witch Hunter became celebrities when they corralled a loose Bodexpress at the Preakness. The horse had dropped John Velazquez at the start, raced with the field for 13⁄16 miles and avoided capture several times before “Hunter” helped Kreidel get close enough to make the grab. The catch helped avert disaster, made the national news and gave “Hunter” a dose of celebrity far beyond his five-start racing career or life as a lead pony.
“He liked my job better than being the stable pony,” Kreidel said of the son of Ghostzapper. “I give him all the credit [for the pick-up in the stretch as the Preakness horses returned to be unsaddled]. He’s the one who outfooted Bodexpress.”
This year, “Hunter” stayed in the barn. Kreidel frequently works mornings at Laurel Park, outriding and galloping, but those jobs are a far cry from Preakness Day – with its throngs of people, live television, spruced up outriders and their even-more-spruced-up horses.
“I miss racing, and can’t wait to get back to racing but I spend all winter prepping for the Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness,” she said. “The outriders get together, figure out our quote-unquote attire – new breeches, new shirts, everything is bling on that day. We want to be sure we represent Maryland very well. We prep our ponies, get them clipped and cleaned up and make sure the ones we’re going to use those days are ready. For all of us, for Maryland racing, this is our biggest week. This is our limelight.”
For Erin McElwee, it might seem more like a spotlight. The Maryland Jockey Club’s facilities coordinator and other staffers are responsible for . . . well, almost everything you see at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness Day. They take care of the turf course, the dirt track, the barns, electricity, plumbing, windows, doors, tables, chairs and so on. It’s a big job and they all invest long hours full of lots of cold pizza and little sleep to get the place ready for the show.
The facilities crew even took its first steps this year.
“We start very early,” McElwee said of the prep work. “We shift to Pimlico two months before Preakness. There are guys in the building doing stuff people don’t think of but stuff that is important to the day and making it work. The crew sleeps there three nights before, in their office. That’s what people don’t understand. Every year you wonder if you can get through it. But right now I want to be doing it. It feels so strange.”
May was indeed strange for McElwee, Kreidel, Singletary, McCue, Rodman and anyone else connected to the Maryland Jockey Club and its efforts to pull off the Preakness. It’s the one time of the year where racing focuses its attention on Maryland. Bob Baffert is in town. Steve Asmussen brings a string. John Velazquez, Mike Smith and the other big names are in the jocks’ room. NBC production trucks fill up the parking lots. Clydesdales from Budweiser or Maryland’s own Suttler Post Farm march down the stretch. The Woodlawn Vase comes out of storage. It’s magic. Until it isn’t.
Covid-19 killed more than 100,000 Americans, pushed the world around and even moved the Preakness. The police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred protests and unrest in cities –
Baltimore included – around the world. None of it stopped thoughts of the Preakness.
~ ~ ~
Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred checked in with several Maryland Jockey Club staffers on their lives during Covid-19 lockdown, their history with the Preakness and looking ahead to October.
Dave Rodman, announcer. Called his first Preakness in 1991, after joining the Maryland Jockey Club from Louisiana Downs. Hansel, trained by Louisiana regular Frankie Brothers, won that Preakness after finishing 10th in the Kentucky Derby.
“I’ve been cleaning the house a little bit, reminiscing a little bit and I found some pictures from my first year here. I remember how nervous I was and how the binoculars were shaking . . . then I had binoculars without any kind of image stabilization. On top of that, I now use a mono pod. Back then I was holding the binoculars as you would if you were in the grandstand. I remember the noise level when the gates opened and as the horses were loading, how much of a buffering wave it was from the infield. There’s nothing like having 100,000 fans in the infield. But once the gates opened you just call the race and do the best you can.”
Since then, Rodman has called two Triple Crown winners (one in the rain, one in the fog), memorable stretch battles and plenty of action. The former radio disc jockey tries not to have a favorite anything – calling races for decades will do that to you – but pointed to 1997 as a special Preakness. It started with “Ohh, Touch Gold stumbled and went to his knees at the start,” from Rodman as the gates opened and finished with an even more declarative, “Free House, Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit – ohh it’s close,” as the Kentucky Derby’s first three finishers hit the finish line together in the Preakness. Silver Charm of course won by a head over Free House, with Captain Bodgit a head back in third. Rodman had seen Captain Bodgit at trainer Gary Capuano’s barn at Bowie and loved the possibility of calling a local winner, even if he wasn’t necessarily rooting.
“That race had so many elements combined into one,” he said. “Touch Gold stumbling, a three-way photo finish, a local angle with Captain Bodgit and Gary Capuano, lots of places in the race where the principals made bold moves and then they come together for that stretch run. It was such a nice day, sunny day, good weather, the shadow of Pimlico is there and they emerged from the shadow right at the wire. They just came out of the shadow into sunlight in a three-horse photo. I don’t know if we’ll have a Preakness that close again.”
Preakness aside, Rodman just wanted to go back to work and finally got the chance when Laurel Park returned May 30. Rodman was there, but few others were.
“I’m not going to be super nervous, but the first stutter or mispronunciation or getting three words ahead of myself I’ll realize I’m back,” he said. “We ran that last week before we closed without fans. Coming into the building, the place was entirely dark – no fans, no machines, no pizza lady. There’s not a ton of people and on a normal day I can’t really hear them unless I open the window, but it’s very eerie going to work and especially leaving work and not seeing people stick around. You’d just walk through the grandstand and go to your car. It doesn’t affect my call, but the before and after you realize the game has changed suddenly. Hopefully it will get back to the way it was.”
Jim McCue, track photographer. He covered his first Preakness in 1971 and expects to work his 50th in October. He used a 4-by-5 speed graphic camera for the first three. Once state-of-the-art and the choice of photojournalists all over the world (Joe Rosenthal used one to take the photo of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima in 1945), the boxy camera is a long way from today’s digital model used by McCue and most everyone else.
“You had two shots,” McCue said. “There was a plate with one [potential image] on one side and one on the other. You had to turn it around, pull the slide, shoot again. You had to concentrate or you blew it.”
McCue rarely blew it, and captured the magic of Secretariat, the drama of Affirmed and Alydar, the battle between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, all of them. He got to know Del Carroll (who won the 1972 Preakness with Bee Bee Bee), Barclay Tagg (Funny Cide, 2003) and the Boniface family (Deputed Testamony, 1983), learned to anticipate the racetrack’s publicity needs and once watched a Preakness alongside actor John Forsythe. McCue used to develop the film and make black and white prints in Pimlico’s dark room next to the paddock (the color stuff printed at Laurel).
He spent the spring of 2020 waiting to go back to work. “It’s weird, but it’s been weird not seeing the Derby on the first Saturday in May and not being at Laurel for races too,” said McCue, 73. “To be there as long as I have been . . . To see the best horseflesh in the country, or the world . . . I can honestly say I truly love my job. How many people can say that?”
Mike Singletary, head of security. A part of the Preakness for 30 years, he might have the hardest job on the roster – or potentially the hardest. If everything goes smoothly, nobody knows Singletary. If there’s a problem, he’ll be front and center as the person responsible for the safety and well-being of Pimlico’s guests. It sounds stressful, but – like McCue – Singletary loves it.
“I’m going through withdrawals,” he said of a May without a Preakness. “We’d be running 14- or 16-hour days this week. When we cross Hayward Avenue, our whole mentality changes. We’re in Preakness mode. I was there the other day . . . and everything was so quiet.”
And it’s usually anything but quiet. Singletary and his security team typically deal with throngs of fans on Preakness Day – in the clubhouse and grandstand, in the stable area, in the infield, everywhere.
“We have to make sure the people in our building, all the patrons, all the staff, all the athletes and participants and all the people in the community are safe,” he said. “It’s a big job. We start meeting in January about it, get applications out, call all of our federal, state and local partners. This year, we put a halt on it.”
Like anybody with a Preakness connection, Singletary must talk about the infield and its various challenges – people, parties, music, action and a potential for problems. It’s different now, but still poses security questions.
“You can’t talk about the infield without talking about the old infield,” he said. “The kids and the community members were lined up to help with coolers, push shopping carts. We always wondered where those kids got all the shopping carts. They had to come from somewhere. The kids hustled and helped people bring in their supplies. Then they waited for them after the Preakness was over too. They were the only way to get property back to the buses and the parking lots afterward. We had to deal with some issues, but we dealt with them. It’s bigger and better now. It’s a more family-friendly atmosphere.”
Erin McElwee, facilities coordinator. A relatively new name on the staff list, she saw Cloud Computing win the 2017 Preakness as something of a week-long job interview. She worked her first in 2018, came back for more last year and was struggling with the absence in 2020.
“I’m a diehard race fan,” she said. “I love what I do. I walk the barns, I can see the races. It’s the best job in the world. Going through [the Covid-19 shutdown]makes me realize how much I like it. It’s reminded me to not take it for granted.”
The facilities department is divided into various crews – turf, track, stable, everything else. A rare woman on the team, McElwee deals with each crew and jokes about having so many male co-workers. “I haven’t dated since I’ve been here, because I don’t have the guts to introduce someone to my 70 brothers,” she said.
McElwee worked on a breeding farm, was an assistant trainer at Penn National, worked state livestock shows. She attended Fantasy Owners Day at Laurel in 2017, loved the atmosphere, the building, the races and sent her resume to a generic Maryland Jockey Club email address. A few months later she was at the Preakness, just to get a taste, and has been on board since that summer. She can’t wait to experience Preakness in October.
“It’s not going to feel the same, but I think we’ll do whatever we can to make it that way,” she said. “We have to embrace change. There’s an opportunity to make it different, look outside the box. We can think about May, but we’re going to make it different and make it special in whatever month it’s going to take place . . . it’s history, a year in history that we get to be part of. That’s not terrible. We’ll get to share all these stories someday.”
Kaymarie Kreidel, outrider. She’s worked a dozen or so Preaknesses as an outrider and – like the others – wouldn’t miss it for much short of a global health crisis.
She caught Bodexpress. She didn’t drown in the rain of 2015. She has picked up the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes winner for years, and 2020 was supposed to be the outriding finale for her horse Stylishly. The 19-year-old Favorite Trick gelding, who won nine races and $150,247, will have to stick it out until October.
“I’ll feel terrible if he doesn’t get his chance,” Kreidel said. Instead of working at Pimlico during Preakness Week, Kreidel stayed home, worked a little, fretted about the future, cleaned and rearranged her house “a hundred times.”
For a Preakness Day television special, she was interviewed over Zoom by Zoe Cadman from XBTV. She rode her horses, all the while thinking about the future.
“I’m used to getting up in the morning, working all morning and then working all afternoon at least three or four days a week,” she said in early May. “Now I come home. I miss it. They’re talking about getting back to racing and maybe only two days a week. I don’t care. Give me something. It’s like getting served soup and salad every day. I’m looking for that steak dinner.
“This has affected everybody. Just think about what that week is like at Pimlico – the Sunrise Tours . . . the horses come in from the Derby . . . the post position draw . . . the Alibi Breakfast . . .”
Just wait. All of that, and Kreidel and McElwee and Singletary and Rodman and McCue – and the Preakness too – will be back in October.