Preakness athletes bunk together This locker room hears no bickering

May 15, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

This is the richest locker room in professional sports.

The athletes are so valuable they require around-the-clock security. Yet nobody bickers over money, management, or playing time. And these millionaires are so unabashed, they eat, sleep and bathe together.

Sometimes even for the cameras.

Come inside the Pimlico Race Course Stakes Barn, where today, the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds in America will wait out the final hours before their two-minute run to glory in the Preakness Stakes.

There's plenty of hay, oats and water for the athletes and enough dreams to sustain even the most jaded of owners, who have made the trip to Baltimore for the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.

And the star, at least up until the 5:32 p.m. post time, is in Stall 40, the room reserved for the reigning Kentucky Derby champion. There, Sea Hero, a bay who hates the heat and loves to run, can be found, usually munching on a hay bale tacked up by the door.

Meanwhile, Too Wild, a long shot with one victory in 16 starts, is in Stall 12 1/2 .

Hey, you think in this game they hand out a number 13?

"It's going to be tense here," said Nick Zito, Too Wild's trainer. "Real tense."

But at least it will be quiet.

No music. No jokes. No speeches.

Just a bunch of athletes patiently standing around and waiting to race a mile and 3/16ths on a day in which the temperature is predicted to reach the 80s. The thunderstorms are supposed to hold off until nightfall.

Far from the chaos of the infield party, where a chain-link fence separates the dressed-down from the dressed-up, out beyond the grandstand filled to the brim with $2 bettors and hundred-dollar players, tucked into a slot on the corner of Rogers and Winner avenues, is the Stakes Barn.

The place is painted in flamingo pink, with pots of geraniums hanging from the eaves.

Stalls have been added and subtracted over the years. There used to be 42, but now there are 36 in all, each large enough to accommodate the animals, which weigh in excess of a thousand pounds each.

There are tack rooms. A couple of dormitory rooms for the grooms. And straw galore.

That's it. Home for Preakness week.

And there really is nothing else like it in all of sports.

Tennis players and golfers may share clubhouse space at their ** tournaments, but they rarely spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, together.

Imagine the National Football League throwing two teams into the same locker room a week before the Super Bowl, and you have some idea of what it's like at the Stakes Barn.

"This isn't like two ballclubs, where there are secret plays," said Lenny Hale, Pimlico's director of racing. "There are no secrets here."

It was Chick Lang, Pimlico's former general manager, who inaugurated the Stakes Barn in 1961. He wanted to bring together the horses, the trainers, the owners and the media. He also figured that everyone could use a rest after enduring the chaos of the Kentucky Derby.

"Race day, it's like being backstage when the great Caruso, or Frank Sinatra, is about to sing," Lang said. "You can feel the tension. Everyone is so serious, so uptight. If anyone even drops a bucket, 18 guys fly up in the air."

Over the years, trainers and owners have made some strange requests for their horses.

"Bottled water, unusual food, owners wanting their horses moved because they dreamed there was a fire, we've had to deal with all of that," Lang said.

"And you can't put the boys next to the girls. Some of these horses will forget about the race and get other things on their minds. Hey, horses are like people."

The strangest request Lang ever received came in 1964 when Bill Finnegan, the trainer of Hill Rise, asked for a favor.

Not only did Pimlico have to house Hill Rise, but the track also had to place his training companion in an adjacent stall. Lang had a window cut out so that Hill Rise could watch his friend and he even placed a mattress in the stall so that the horse wouldn't rub his leg against a wall.

"We called it 'the padded cell,' " Lang said.

But nothing is too good for these athletes.

Hale calculates that the 12 horses in the Preakness and the six horses entered in the Pimlico Special are worth a combined $100 million.

Any strange requests this year?

Well, there was one. Hegar, a late entry driven up from Florida yesterday, was supposed to occupy a stall next to Too Wild and Zito's other horse, Strike the Gold, a Pimlico Special entry.

But Zito asked that Hegar take a spot in another barn across the parking lot from the Stakes Barn.

"Let's say you've been living in a room for seven days and someone moves in next door the night before a big event," Zito said. "Would you be happy? Everything has been the same, and at the last minute, you don't want to change things."

So Hegar is across the parking lot. The horse is trained by Penny Lewis. And Zito dates Lewis' daughter.

Tough game.

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