It is seven o'clock, in the gray morning of the day the race meeting begins when the man who runs the track drives through the gates. Most racetracks nowadays are run by accountants, which may be why so many of them are such arid and joyless casinos. But the man who runs this one, Pimlico, and who will oversee the running of the Preakness there this Saturday, is Chick Lang—a friendly chunk of a fellow, an open sort of man who wears his heart on his sleeve and replicas of black-eyed Susans everywhere else. He moves through the doors and begins searching out his associates: Walter and Baby Cakes, Shorty and Skeets and the rest.
Lang is known everywhere as Chick, as his father was before him, and his father's father, and his father's father. Lang's own son is in line for the name, although like all previous incipient Chick Langs he is serving an apprenticeship as Chickie or Chickadee. The incumbent Chick looks quite the way a man named Chick should look, which is proper because people at racetracks are named for reasons.
Eatable Pat, for example, one of Lang's favorite backstretch figures, earned his name by hanging around the track kitchen, betting newcomers that he could outeat them, which he could. And Jupiter Bill (or, familiarly, Jupe) knew the birth date of every jockey and trainer and picked the races by horoscope. There are equally good reasons why Sweet Potatoes, Mr. Squirrel, Goofy Gerald, Drop Cord, Tenderfoot and Hard Times were so named. And so, too, with Chick, notwithstanding the fact that he is 46 now and a grandfather. But always Chick: unregenerate crew cut, eternal good humor, adolescent mischievousness and a chubby countenance.
As the squire of Pimlico and special guardian of the track's great race, the Preakness, Lang holds mixed credentials. He is a high school dropout, and the only employment he ever had in the world outside the track was as an unskilled laborer. At the track, however, he is bred for class on both sides.
May 20, 1973
His father was one of the foremost riders of his time and rode the Kentucky Derby winner in 1928; his maternal grandfather, John P. Mayberry, was a trainer who saddled the Derby winner in 1903. Lang himself has done virtually every job there is to do around a track. As general manager, his love for his present position is so all-pervading that Nathan Cohen, the vice-president of Pimlico, says, "Chick's enthusiasm can get downright sickening."
Lang is worried because it looks dangerously like rain on opening day. Instinctively he finds the bright side. "If I ever was anywhere when natural disaster struck, I would try to get to a racetrack, because I would feel safe there," he says. "When I go over to the back-stretch, I have this feeling like, 'Hey, Ma, I'm back!' The school books are on the kitchen table and the icebox door is open. You know? Sometimes I like to walk out to the infield by myself and sit there and look back at it all. What a feeling!"
"You see," Nathan Cohen says, "until Chick started working at Pimlico, he had no home."
As a jockey's son, Lang spent his school years transferring from Maryland to Florida to New York, and sometimes to and from Louisiana. There were no roots. He has now become a dedicated Baltimorean and Marylander, fiercely proud of the place where he has chosen to live. "This is a tough town, and I can say that because it's my home," Lang says, "but I won't let anybody from New York say it."
The Langs came from Hamilton, Ontario, but the family had ties in Baltimore. Chick was born there and lived off and on with his grandmother in a house near Pimlico. The life of a transient was hardly glamorous. Chick's father enjoyed his best riding years before his son was born, and he failed to invest his earnings wisely. He was, besides, the kind of man who would trim even a short roll if a friend made a touch. At 5'4" he also was just a smidgen big for a jockey and in his riding comebacks the battle with overweight began to do him in.
He had wanted his Chickie to become a veterinarian, but what young Lang wanted was to be a jockey like his father. That dream dissolved when he grew into a 6-footer weighing, now, 215 pounds. It was as a hot-walker and exercise boy that Chickie broke into racing, helping his father as the older man's health failed. Chick Lang, the nation's leading rider in 1921, the man who won the '28 Derby on Reigh Count, died at the age of 42, broke and coughing. "He had lived most of his life on grapefruit, Melba toast, cigarettes and coffee," his son says. A portrait of the jockey in his Derby silks hangs opposite Lang's office desk.
Shorty comes into the office, and Chick tells him not to unlock the elevators until the gates open at 11:30. He does not want the employees dirtying them up. "They'd be wall-to-wall clam chowder by the time people get here," he explains to Shorty.
Shorty agrees, but reminds Chick that a state functionary is scheduled to arrive shortly to inspect the elevators. Chick is wiser than that. "Don't worry about him now," he says. "Nobody with a political job is going to be anywhere at 8:30 on a Saturday morning."
("Me, my father, whoever—you get to be a pretty good people handicapper, too, if you spend your life around a racetrack," says Chick's son Chickie, a handicapper for the Baltimore Sun. "If you don't learn to tell the reallys from the phonies, they'll bury you.")
"I don't care for anyone who doesn't hit it right down the middle," Chick says. He regularly cites a trinity of straight shooters as his heroes: Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, General George Patton and Vince Lombardi. "These are the kind of men who made this country," he says. "These are the men who get it done. I want to be a leader myself. I'm not a rebel; I want to do the accepted thing, but I don't ever want to be a follower. When it is wrong, I want to turn it around."
In his time he has jumped out of his car to help a policeman apprehend a suspect in the midst of a hostile crowd, and he has been hospitalized after taking a fall while chasing a burglar. Once; hearing a cry, he roared out of a hotel room in his underpants and wound up moments later out on the sidewalk wrestling a berserk rapist for possession of a pistol. He takes a perverse delight in telling his children that he is proud when their friends snicker at his haircut and call him Archie Bunker. "But understand," he says, "I never dislike more than three people at the same time. I just don't have the time. Actually, one of my three passed away, so now I have one slot open."
One of the two survivors is currently enshrined in Lang's office, his photograph reposing underneath a nonfunctional toilet seat, the cover of which is decorated with black-eyed Susans. But then most everything at the track features black-eyed Susans, which is Maryland's state flower, matching Maryland's black and gold state colors. They are also the flowers that adorn the winner of Maryland's greatest race—Chick Lang's Preakness. Sometimes—mercifully seldom—the Preakness is even called the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans.
Invariably, though, the Preakness is referred to as The Middle Jewel in the Triple Crown. The Preakness is grateful for such small favors since it falls between the Kentucky Derby, which is pure Americana, and the Belmont, which is a cotillion, very big in the business and society of racing. The Preakness has long been the nondescript one in between, and even Baltimore has come to accept the role.
The first Preakness, won by Survivor, was run exactly 100 years ago next week—May 27, 1873—but there were no renewals in 1891-92-93, so this is only the 98th Preakness. The race is named for a huge bay who was foaled in 1867 and given an Indian name meaning "quail woods," after a place near Paterson, N.J. that George Washington spelled "Preckiness." Preakness the horse left his mark on both sides of the Atlantic. Here there was his own record and the race that was named for him. Abroad he became an involuntary cause cél√®bre. He was taken to England by the 12th Duke of Hamilton, who was apparently as headstrong as the big bay he bought. Man and horse had a dispute, but the duke had the gun, and one day he shot Preakness dead. The furor set off by the incident helped bring animal treatment reforms to the British Isles.
The Preakness was shifted to New York in 1890 when racing was abandoned at Pimlico and did not return there until 1909. At that time it and the Belmont were the preeminent 3-year-old classics; not until after World War I—after Colonel Matt Winn had pushed it along—did the Derby become the first prize. Lang is under no delusion that he is ever going to supplant the Derby, but he has upgraded the Preakness significantly since he arrived at Pimlico in 1960. Nathan Cohen estimates the race now has a real worth of $500,000 a year to the track, and attendance keeps growing. This Saturday, with Secretariat and a special salute to Johnny Unitas (a tribute to beloved No. 19 on May 19), it would not be surprising to see last year's record 48,712 attendance fall handily.
For the Preakness, Lang transforms Pimlico's infield into a suitably sanitized bacchanalia: bands, local celebrities, Miss Preakness, picnics and a general carnival air right down to cotton-candy machines. Even a lacrosse game. Alas, there also has been one distinct failure: nobody has been able to come up with an appropriate Preakness drink to match the Derby's mint julep. Everybody seems happy enough with just beer and crab cakes. "Crab cakes open at 3 to 5 and will probably go down to 1 to 5," says Chick.
Lang loves (o twit the Derby. He has referred to it publicly as "The Preakness Prep." He has taken out advertising on Louisville buses and billboards for the Preakness, along with more unconventional ways to promote his race, using $10 play-money bills and fake mutuel tickets and spotlights. Once he and three friends blew up 5,000 balloons imprinted NEXT STOP PREAKNESS, then floated them out of their hotel window onto the Derby parade. Unbelievably, the management at Churchill Downs took some of these high jinks seriously a few years ago and fired off a letter of protest to Pimlico.
Still, Lang realizes exactly how important the Derby is to his race. His major effort in Louisville is to assure that the Derby winner and other contenders will ship to Baltimore. "Look," says Chick with a wink, "never forget that the Preakness has one thing that the Derby does not have. We have the Derby winner."
Spiro T. Agnew (Rep., Md.) and William Hartack (114): at different times in his life, Chick Lang has been remarkably close to these two disparate individuals. He retains ties to both, although the bonds are not as intimate as they were in the past.
Lang met Agnew at a golf club near their Baltimore County homes in 1962, at a time before Agnew held elective office above P.T.A. Lang was immediately taken by the man, and in 1966, when Agnew ran for governor, he took a leave of absence from Pimlico to become Agnew's personal aide. For three months of campaigning all over the state, Lang was the one person who was with "The Man"—as he usually calls him—every waking moment of every day.
Presumably, if there is anyone who knows Spiro Agnew, it is Lang. His assessment: "I've never met a person in my life who I am so fond of and respect so much as the Vice-President. The Man has the greatest command of the English language of anyone who has ever lived. Now, I want to make sure you get that right the way I said that: not just any living person, but anyone who has ever lived."
And Agnew on Lang? The Vice-President brings his fingertips together and, peering over the elephant figurines that guard the fountain pens on his desk, he smiles:
"Chick has unusual skills, great political quality, really. He bears much resemblance, it seems, to what I've heard of Jim Farley. He was extremely valuable to me, and I could have used him in a staff position, but he needs a less structured existence.
"He could always soothe people who were irritated, and manage that while exercising total good sense. He is unflappable and considerate, and he could always see the humor in things. Ultimately, the thing I remember most about Chick is that he possesses such a deep understanding of how people feel."
Lang's association with Hartack reaches back much farther, to the fall of 1953 when Chick was a jockey's agent and more or less by chance wound up with the riding book of a youngster who had come down from West Virginia. Lang's contacts won the handsome Hartack a few key mounts, and Hartack took full advantage of the opportunity, moving right to the top. "When we first met, Billy was quiet, an introvert, but he was smart," Lang recalls, "and in the hole he had guts and determination and a belief in himself. Nobody ever rode a man's beast like Billy Hartack." He was soon the nation's leading rider, and he and Lang were off. In 1957 Lang's 20% of Hartack came to better than $50,000. On his right pinky Chick still sports the large horseshoe diamond ring that his jockey gave him when they won the riding title the first time. "He became my other son—people still call him that. And it is true. I love Billy like a son. Oh, the nice things he did for me. He would take my kids and pile them into his big car and go off to a toy store and buy them $60, $70 worth of toys, whatever they wanted—he didn't have many toys when he was a boy—and then all the ice cream and candy they wanted. Chickie adored him. When he went to work for the Sun, I know he was only worried about what Billy would think about that, him becoming a writer. And my daughter. They asked Deborah what she wanted to be when she grew up, and all she said was that she wanted to grow up so she could marry Billy Hartack."
But Hartack had another side to him, too, and as the seasons went by it began to catch up with him. He was often hard to get along with, prideful, defensive, arrogant with friends and the owners on whom he ultimately depended. "You have to say that he destroyed himself," says Chick. "He didn't have to be so critical, to treat everyone the way he did. I pleaded with him many times." The big rides came less frequently and there was little left but rancor and controversy. "In many ways," Lang insists, "we are closer now than ever. He always leaves Oaklawn and comes in here to ride when Pimlico opens. He called me the other day and asked me to get him an agent.
"But he changed somewhere, and it became harder and harder. After he told someone that I had forgotten who was the employer and who was the employee, after I heard that, I knew I had to leave him. I said, 'Billy, I didn't know you thought of us that way.' The last horse I put him up on was Venetian Way. This was early 1960 and he won the Derby on him, but I was gone by then.
"When I went to work for Hartack, I was the man and he was the boy, but by the time we parted, I was the boy and he was the man."
Last May 20th Lang woke up to find it raining on Preakness Day, and he began to cry. He sat at the foot of the bed and bawled for quite some time until finally his wife Nancy reminded him that he was a grown man, so stop crying. He said he was thinking mostly about the pianos and the cotton-candy machines in the infield.
Opening day for Pimlico this year looked as if it, too, might turn out badly. The sky was dark, and luncheon reservations, usually an accurate barometer of attendance, were light. Lang agreed with Cecil, the track superintendent, that they would probably have to work on the track's surface. Then he cut back on his print order for the day's programs (they are printed on a railroad car that is hauled from track to track with its own press) and sputtered at his imminent misfortune.
He dialed the local weather forecast. "The crucial hours, when people make up their minds, are ten to twelve," he said. "That's when you need the sun. I don't believe this stuff about all the people who were going to work on their lawns who decide to come out to the races if it rains." The forecast called for afternoon clearing, with an unseasonable March high near 70, then high gale winds, falling temperatures and, by night, snow flurries. "Seventy degrees and snow," Chick snorted. "They must be smoking pot over there. They can't pick the weather any better than I pick the horses." So he tried Newark airport; he likes their forecasts better. Newark said clearing in Baltimore pretty soon. Lang beamed. "See?" he said.
The sun burned through at 10:10. It was a gorgeous day. He went out to mingle.
Since Lang is one of the rare track executives who is recognized by his patrons, it has become increasingly difficult for him to drift around and kibitz with the bettors without being harassed by horse-players trying to squeeze a free pass out of him. Because of all the money that goes through the betting windows, many racegoers believe that having to pay admission to the track is an imposition, that such an insignificant sum should be beneath the track's dignity. In point of fact, a track's cut of the mutuel take is so small that printing and servicing a $2 ticket actually costs the track almost twice what it makes on it. Tracks generally must survive on the bagatelles of admissions, concessions and parking. Few men would dare walk up to David Merrick and demand an Annie Oakley for a Broadway hit or try to buck Wellington Mara for a season freebie to the Giants, but everywhere Chick Lang goes—and on the phone and by mail—people have no qualms about fiat out asking him for a pass, or maybe two.
"And what business are you in, sir?" Chick replies. "Oh, tires? Well, how about sending me over four free white-walled radials?"
Paying regulars stop Lang to congratulate him on the appearance of the plant—once a shabby establishment of Cimmerian gloom—the way a housewife might say nice things about her neighbor's new slipcovers. A local character, a sometime balloon retailer named Mr. Diz, accosts Lang with Swiftian logic. "Chick, the one trouble with this racetrack is that now it's too good for the kind of people who go to racetracks."
Farther along, in the clubhouse, a moon-faced old man catches up with Lang and shakes his hand warmly, murmuring gratitude. His name is Harry the Horse Caplan, alias Horse Thief Burke. He was an old companion of the late Damon Runyon, celebrated by the writer for explaining to the cops that he had only picked up the end of a rope—and how was he to know that there was somebody's horse connected to the other end? Horse Thief had been ruled off the tracks for touting. Now the ban was off and he was back, and grateful. A racetrack was about the most favorite place in his life. "Thank you, Chick," he said huskily.
Lang had to leave the old man to find Shorty and Baby Cakes; rising high winds had done some damage down by the winner's circle. That attended to, he climbed up to the balcony of the jockeys' room to watch the first half of the daily double, the first race of the meeting. A jock's valet came up to him. "Your other son just got here," he said. Chick smiled; Bill Hartack had arrived, just as he promised, from Oaklawn.
The horses went into the gate. "Root for the eight," Chick said to no one in particular. Eight was the favorite. Management likes favorites to win because it means that more money stays in more hands, which means more money to be lost as the day wears on. In Maryland cynics maintain that since there is more money to be bet and lost on Saturdays, Saturday is a day for favorites. All over Pimlico, when a favorite comes in, people tear up their tickets and say, "I shoulda known! It's Sarruday, ain't it?"
Harry the Horse would surely believe that, too. But, at just about the time Chick was climbing to the jocks' balcony for the first race, Horse Thief keeled over and died in front of the $50 window in the clubhouse. He was 69 years old and did not have a whole lot of cash in his pockets.
No. 8 came out of the gate behind 11 horses in a field of 12. No. 11 took the lead; 11 was the second choice in the betting. "The 11 always runs good on this track," Chick said, adjusting quickly; the second choice keeps a lot of money in circulation, too. Eleven won, wire to wire. The restaurant was jammed with late reservations. The track dried out well. In fact, the weather had been so perfect that there were 4,000 more people on hand than Lang had dared hope for. Even the mayor showed up. Betting topped $1.7 million. Lang's other son won the fifth race. The favorite won the feature; it was Sarruday, after all. Chickie Lang tabbed three winners in his handicap selections. Chick's wife Nancy hit an $85 Exacta. Chick permitted himself a hot dog and a beer.
The temperature dropped 37° and there were snow flurries that night. "If the peanuts don't get you, the popcorn will," Chick said.