Giving the Preakness new prominence


May 18, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The annual running of the Preakness always reminds me of David F. Woods, an old newsroom colleague, who was director of public relations for the Maryland Jockey Club during what many race fans would probably consider Pimlico's golden age.

When I first got to know Dave in the early 1970s, he was far removed from the glory days at Pimlico when his first big promotion was the legendary match race in 1938 between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

He was a kindly and exceedingly thoughtful newsroom presence who sought out newcomers to make them feel welcome. With his gray hair combed straight back and his Ivy League fashions, he had a certain avuncular air.

He was seldom without a lit Pall Mall between his fingers, and preferred talking with his chair kicked back from his desk and his feet, shod in highly buffed penny loafers, on the desktop.

In 1970, he joined The Evening Sun as editor of the paper's Direct Line column, which helped readers find solutions for problems they encountered with local government or businesses. Earlier, during the 1960s, he had produced a similar column for the old News-American.

"Dave was almost the perfect newsman. He was interested in everything - sports, politics, business, music, literature," Philip Heisler, former Evening Sun managing editor, said at the time of Woods' death in 1982. "He was almost like a gossip, he liked people so much. Some people might call him nosy, but that's part of the equipment of being a good newsman, isn't it?

"He had close friends in almost every strata. He could go to Pimlico and every stable boy knew him by name. And Dave knew the name of every horse owner," he said.

Woods was born in St. Louis and reared in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a newspaperman. He went to work in the 1920s for the United States Lines in New York, and moved to Baltimore in 1931, when he took a position with the Baltimore Mail Line as a booking agent.

As passenger traffic fell off because of the Depression, Woods found himself looking for a job and in 1936 became director of the Baltimore Association of Commerce.

"One of the things I proposed was a Preakness Ball, even though I had never even been to the races. The old Maryland Jockey Club hated promotions, although of course I didn't know that. I was fortunate because that was the year Alfred Vanderbilt bought into Pimlico and he thought it was a good idea," Woods said in a 1978 interview with The Maryland Horse.

It was his idea to kick off a week-long series of events, which began with the crowning of the first Preakness Queen at the Preakness Ball, as guests danced to the music of Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey.

He also brought Lawrence Tibbett, reigning Metropolitan Opera star, to Baltimore to crown Eleanor Lanahan Miles as the first Preakness Queen. It was also his idea to give away a horse as a door prize, and he even persuaded a local florist to create a Preakness rose.

"That's how I first met Alfred Vanderbilt, and the day after the Preakness he called and asked me to come to Pimlico. `We don't have anybody handling public relations there,' he told me. I took the job right off and they also put me on the board," Woods said in the Maryland Horse interview.

After the success of the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, Vanderbilt and Woods opened Pimlico for the first time to daily stakes races. In 1940, when Vanderbilt became president of Belmont Park, he took Woods along as director of public relations.

"He always seemed to me to be very erudite and not the typical promoter-publicity type. He was at the other end of the scale and always did an excellent job," said Joseph B. Kelly, retired Washington Star racing editor, who got to know Woods when he covered thoroughbred racing for The Sun in the late 1940s.

"For years, the Preakness was a Baltimore thing and not universally embraced. Dave had an idea of trying to make the Preakness into an all-around important event and he was fairly successful at that. He was pretty sharp and great with people," he said.

Kelly recalled Woods' second-floor office in an old wooden building adjacent to the paddock, with windows looking out on the famed clubhouse turn.

"It was an old-fashioned and informal office and a great place to watch a race, with all kinds of people continually drifting in and out," he said.

Kelly also credits Woods with finding the 15 missing Preakness races, which were run at Gravesend racetrack in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Morris Park between 1890 and 1909, when financial problems forced the race to leave Baltimore.

"He searched old charts and was able to incorporate those races into the Preakness lore," said Kelly.

After Vanderbilt sold his interest in Pimlico in 1952, Woods left the Maryland Jockey Club and continued working in public relations. As public relations counselor to Clarence Miles, he helped in the negotiations that led to the return of Major League Baseball to Baltimore in 1954.

Woods' book, The Fireside Book of Horse Racing, an anthology of racing stories, was published in 1963. At his death, he was writing a biography of his friend and fellow turf enthusiast, poet Ogden Nash.

The David F. Woods Memorial Award, which is given annually at the Alibi Breakfast in the Pimlico clubhouse, honors the author of the best Preakness story of the year, and recalls the man who elevated the Preakness to national prominence.

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