The Chatter

Ever Wonder What Happens Behind the Scenes at Pimlico?

Sunrise at Old Hilltop tours offer insider's look at Preakness.

By Amy Mulvihill | May 17, 2016, 6:12 pm

-Photography by Meredith Herzing
The Chatter

Ever Wonder What Happens Behind the Scenes at Pimlico?

Sunrise at Old Hilltop tours offer insider's look at Preakness.

By Amy Mulvihill | May 17, 2016, 6:12 pm

-Photography by Meredith Herzing

Horses get up early.

That's the first thing you learn when you sign up for Sunrise at Old Hilltop, the early morning tours Pimlico Race Course hosts every year in the days leading up to the Preakness. The tours start bright and early at 6 a.m. and run every 15 minutes or so until 9 a.m., by which time the horses generally have finished their morning workouts and retired back to their stalls for a mid-morning siesta. But in that window of time, the walking tours provide a rare behind-the-scenes look at Pimlico during the run up to one of the most elite sporting events in the world. It's a little like being backstage at the Dolby Theater before the Oscars or getting to walk through the West Wing of The White House. You're getting to see the often-ordinary daily machinations that produce extraordinary events.

For the record, Pimlico hosts the Preakness Stakes every third Saturday in May. The race, which has been run almost continuously since 1873, pits the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds against one another over a distance of a mile and three-sixteenths. It is the second race—or "jewel"—in thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, which starts on the first Saturday in May at the Kentucky Derby and ends three weeks after the Preakness at the Belmont Stakes in New York. Since the Triple Crown was founded in the late 1800s, only 12 horses have swept all three races, the most recent being American Pharoah, who, last year, became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Basically, it's a hard thing to do, and when a horse does it, it's a big freaking deal.

Coming in to this year's Preakness, the favorite remains Nyquist, an undefeated colt who ran an impressive Kentucky Derby on a sloppy track. His main competitor is Exaggerator, who, not for the first time, finished a strong second to Nyquist that day. On the Tuesday before Preakness, the horses—some might call them rivals—were the only two Preakness competitors already ensconced at Pimlico. The others, we were told, will trickle in as the week progressed, taking up stalls in the "Preakness Barn," the fanciest of the four green stables behind the grandstand.

Though we were at the foot of the grandstand by 6:45 a.m., we were, apparently, still not early enough to catch Nyquist, who had completed his morning routine already and gone back to the barn for some R&R. As our tour guide, Anita, told us, this is likely a deliberate tactic employed by the horse's trainer and owner, a ploy to keep their high-octane athlete as calm and focused as possible. Understandable, of course, but disappointing nonetheless. We contented ourselves by watching several other racehorses breeze down the stretch. Plus, Exaggerator, had not yet appeared for his morning gallop, so there was hope yet.

-Photography by Meredith Herzing

After inhaling some free Kind bars and juice—Pimlico wisely assumes you probably haven't had time to eat breakfast yet—we set off in our group with Anita, a 25-year veteran of the Maryland horse racing industry, leading the way. We started inside the empty grandstand, the shades drawn on the betting windows, the linoleum floors gleaming under the pallid light. Overall, it felt like being in a high school cafeteria after hours, eerily peaceful and sterilely atmospheric. Of course, Pimlico's aging facilities have long been a source of frustration for racing officials, who say they need to offer more VIP accommodations if they are to keep the race economically viable. Though it may not happen soon, Pimlico will hopefully see some sort renovation in the future. That's probably for the greater good, but there is something appealingly barebones—and so very, very Baltimore—about the spartan facilities as they stand now—an almost defiant unfussiness that we'd miss, even as we'd rejoice at the prospect of reliably functioning restrooms.

-Photography by Meredith Herzing

The first stop on our tour was a chat with Bobby, a former jockey who displayed equipment ranging from feather-light silks to a racing saddle that was about as substantial as a leather belt. He regaled us with tidbits about jockey life ("I now have an office in the corner there with a desk and a phone. It's a lot safer."), showed us the vests jockeys wear to prevent cracked ribs in the event they get trampled, and passed out pairs of goggles to the kids in the group. (Jockeys often wear goggles to keep the dirt out of their faces.)

-Photography by Meredith Herzing
-Photography by Amy Mulvihill

Then it was outside to the four "back lot" barns, including the Preakness Barn" from which Exaggerator emerged, all tacked up and heading to the track for his exercise. We watched forlornly as he disappeared in the other direction but perked up when we spied Satire, Nyquist's "lead pony," who travels and works out alongside him, providing stability and companionship. Satire, a former racehorse himself, was getting hosed down after the morning's workout and his handler took some time to answer our questions about the horses' bond.

"Would Nyquist notice if Satire wasn't there with him?" we wondered.

"Oh, yeah," came the emphatic reply.

So racehorses have besties, too.

-Photography by Meredith Herzing

After that, it was around the corner for a visit with Mike, the state blacksmith, who handles shoeing needs at Pimlico. He showed the various types of horseshoes one can attach to a hoof and then demonstrated the size difference between a racehorse shoe and a draft horse shoe—it's a big one!

-Photography by Amy Mulvihill

Speaking of draft horses, our next stop was the stalls of the Budweiser Clydesdales who are scheduled to appear at Preakness. Well, to be accurate, some of the Budweiser Clydesdales are in town. As we learned, Budweiser maintains several teams, plus a few horses who stay at the company's farms in Missouri and are taught special tricks for commercial and film appearances. Other trivia: Clydesdales weigh about 2,000 pounds and ingest about 30 gallons of water, 50 pounds of hay, and two to five quarts of feed per day.

-Photography by Meredith Herzing

Once we finished gawking at the Clydesdales, we were lead into another of the "back lot" barns, this one housing racehorses that make up what Anita called, "the bread and butter of Maryland horse racing." In other words, you'll probably never know their names, but they're out there all the same, winning low-level stakes races and keeping the gears turning in Maryland's storied thoroughbred racing industry. A jockey named Marco allowed the kids in the group to feed peppermints to a dark bay colt named Grandiflora and a pretty chestnut filly named Sazerac Girl and then we departed, heading back to the grandstand.

-Photography by Meredith Herzing

Back inside and out of the rain that was now gently but steadily falling, we visited the jockey's locker room and lounge where we saw racks upon racks of brightly colored racing silks, a scale for weighing in before the race (horses are assigned a weight limit and jockeys can not exceed it), and a and ping-pong table for blowing off steam.

-Photography by Amy Mulvihill

Then it was down to the paddock with its cushioned flooring and open stalls, where the horses wait before being called onto the track. "A hothouse environment," is how Anita described the space on race days. "Having done this, I can tell you that it's pretty nerve-wracking to be in here with a dancing 1,000-pound animal on the end of a shank," she noted.

Out of the paddock, we retraced our steps through the still empty grandstand back out to the apron overlooking the track where horses were still being exercised in the steady drizzle. In all, the tour took a little over an hour, though Anita said she usually does it faster.

"I was talking a lot today," she said apologetically.

"No, don't apologize," said one older man with our group. "I didn't think we'd get to see this much!"

Sunrise at Old Hilltop tours are available from 6 a.m.-9 a.m. through Friday. The last tour departs at 8:45 a.m. Tours are free and on a first come, first served basis. Reservations are not accepted. More information is available on the official Preakness site.




You May Also Like

The Chatter

Why It's Time to Start Paying Attention to the Maryland Terps

We break down five reasons to hop aboard the Testudo Train.

The Birds Nest

Orioles Execs Not Mentioned in ‘AstroGate’ Sign-Stealing Scandal

GM Mike Elias and the O’s other ex-Astros employees have steered clear of the fallout.

The Chatter

What Did Baltimore Google in 2019?

Here are the topics and trends that got Charm City talking this year.


The Chatter

Gervonta Davis Wins Another World Title Belt, Eyes ‘Big Year’ Ahead

West Baltimore’s own was bruised, but not beaten in longest fight of his pro career.

Ravens Watch

The Stunning End to This Ravens Season Won’t Be Easy To Get Over

From a "car crash" to a bad dream, here’s what players said after the team’s unexpected playoff exit.

Sports

All in a Day With Ronnie Stanley

We follow the daily routine of the Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle.

Connect With Us