"It came as a jolt to visit the Baltimore home of $20 million worth of Thoroughbred horses."
The stakes barn at Pimlico, just behind the fence at Rogers and Winner avenues, is one of the most prestigious and coveted addresses in Baltimore.
To stay here, Barn E, your bloodlines and breeding must be impeccable. Your finances should make an Alex. Brown & Sons partner's eyes roll. Come Saturday, some 80,000-plus spectators will critique your appearance and performance.
Yet the horses entered in the Preakness Stakes are quartered in 108-year-old, board-and-batten stables, racing relics left over from the days when Pimlico was a Baltimore County address and a long ride from downtown on a coal-fired Northern Central Railroad train.
You can't help but be struck by the horses' housing. No fieldstone Connecticut farmsteads or fancy Victorian carriage house here. Ralph Lauren's models will never be photographed in horsey tweeds against a background of these stables.
Yet, after the big race, it's the hallowed ground where the Paul Mellons, Alfred G. Vanderbilts and Jock Whitneys congregated for the traditional champagne popping.
Only the best make it to this otherwise pathetic little stretch of oak boards and straw carpeting.
Pimlico's stakes barn is surely no beauty. It's a piece of practical racetrack history. Its patched roof has its ups and downs. The paint, a tone of nail-polish pink, has more layers than an onion.
An Eastern Shoreman might be offended if you described these structures as being first cousins to a Dorchester County chicken coop.
But I wouldn't change pillar or post. With all the inflated egos in professional sports today, it's comforting to observe a classic that practices some humility.
The stakes barn is equipped with a fire-sprinkler system. There's some electricity and the running water is outside.
The barn is free of fussy decoration. Someone has hung a few plastic hanging basins of impatiens from the edge of the roof. There are a few old wooden barrels filled with yellow flowers.
Who, after all, could improve upon the grace and beauty of its thoroughbred residents?
Pimlico constructed a range of new, cinder block barns some years ago behind the backstretch, clear across the property. Their walls and roofs are plumb and perfect. These barns lack the character of the older precinct.
But the old barn area, close to the grandstand and clubhouse, is its own little neighborhood, with track kitchen and blacksmith shop. The only things it lacks are the spreading shade trees and dirt walks it possessed before asphalt and automobiles got the upper hand.
The Preakness' popular appeal is its undefinable formula of pageantry, history, style, speed and unashamed good times. There must be something that attracts half the local world to the infield.
It was 20 years ago, May 15, 1971, that my brother and I got swept up in it and signed up as ushers at Old Hilltop. We were in college and had never before ushered and were assigned the most dreaded part of an ancient grandstand, another frame relic that gets employed for Preakness Day's capacity crowds. Our area was so far away from the clubhouse (and the fancy seats) we might as well have been on the old Mount St. Agnes College property.
We donned costumes worthy of Loew's theaters in the 1940s. They fit right in with grandstand Preakness garb.
Our responsibilities were seating patrons in chairs coated with a year's dust. The chair bottoms groaned when you forced them down.
People paid about $5 for these seats and didn't seem to mind the extra duty of the tip. They were at the track for a great Preakness, which Canonero II delivered with a new track record set that day.
I took home $28, made entirely in tips, mostly quarters. I don't think a single person failed to offer some change. The money was a big deal, for the going rate for an eight-hour shift on the Saturday city desk of the old News American was $25, less taxes.
I guess one day, somebody will update the ushers' uniforms and bulldoze the grandstands. But hesitate about Stakes Barn E. It's the classiest address in Baltimore, if only for a week in May.