Pimlico's starter reaches career finish line

May 18, 2002

DURING a 44-year span, Pimlico starter Danny Fitchett has watched Chris McCarron break a record for wins by a jockey, and Dick Dutrow set a record for victories by a trainer. He still marvels at the memory of Secretariat and has similar feelings for Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

So when the 127th running of the Preakness begins today, a chapter in racing history will come to a close when Fitchett starts the middle jewel of the Triple Crown at Pimlico.

Fitchett, 61, will officially retire in July, trading in decades of note-taking on thoroughbreds for fishing and riding around in his red 1972 convertible Super Sport Chevy.

"The car will turn your head. It's cool," said Fitchett, a 1958 graduate of Franklin High School in Reisterstown. "But I haven't had time for much reflection. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and praying for a great start. When this race is over, I'll be on the bay, come rain or shine."

Fitchett deserves a little R&R.

A big guy with broad shoulders and a wide smile, he actually seems tailor-made for the job. He has the handshake of a blacksmith and the warmth of a grandfather, but the intensity of a pro middle linebacker.

Most people really don't understand the significance of his job. They think Fitchett just leads the horses into the gate, then the bell rings and someone yells, "They're off!"

But Fitchett has several ruptured discs in his back to prove otherwise. Assistant starter Kevin Dzbynski has a bone protruding from his knee, another reminder of what happens when a 180-pound man and a 1,000-pound animal disagree.

"The man usually finishes second," Fitchett said. "It was probably in 1982 or 1983 that Y Over X jumped right on top of me. I was about a third into the gate when he jumped right on top of me. I've been living with a bad back since. I've had broken ankles, been bitten and kicked. It's part of the job. You're going to have to take your lumps and bumps."

Fitchett expects a good field in the starting gate today, unlike 1997 when Fritchett's staff couldn't get Cryp Too into the gate. Fritchett almost scratched the horse, his first at the Preakness.

"The horse kept kicking at everybody, I mean right over our heads," Fitchett said. "I had it in my head to scratch him, but we finally got him in the gate. Usually, when you get a race like a Preakness, you get a certain caliber horse and there are not a lot of problems."

Fitchett has his own library on 1,000 horses dating back to 1998. It's filled with extensive notes, such as which horses can't be touched on their ears or tails entering the gate, or which ones might need to be blindfolded. Others need a slight whip.

There is even a school. It takes months to teach a horse a proper start.

"The first thing I do every morning is to check out how the horses act," said Fitchett. "I don't care how they run, but how they walk in and break out of the gate. If they broke awkwardly somewhere, then we're doing something wrong, even if they broke a little to the left, right or a bit of a tangle.

"It takes some schooling. You got to get them to stand quiet, then let them jog out front, then let the door flop, then to actually break. It takes two to three breaks before they usually get it down."

The job requires a feel for horses. Fitchett developed one working for his father, Andy, a trainer, as a groom and then later a hot walker. He became a starter at Charles Town at age 15 when the regular broke his arm.

"In the old days, Maryland had just 60-day meetings," Fitchett said. "They had tracks in Bel Air, Hagerstown, Marlboro and Cumberland. It was like a traveling road show. So in the summer of 1955, the guy at Charles Town told my father I was a pretty big boy and he thought I could do the job. My father agreed, and I've been doing it ever since."

But this just isn't a job for Fitchett. It's a passion.

Dzybynski says Fitchett is extremely easygoing in the mornings, but becomes very intense in the afternoons when the races start. Fitchett often talks with jockeys and trainers about their horses, and there are very few complaints.

Fitchett commands respect.

"I'm a big guy," said Fitchett. "I'll take some stuff, but not a whole lot. I just like things done right as far as the job goes. If that happens, then there is no problem. I respect that."

He has as much respect for the horses.

"Secretariat, when I walked up to him to lead him into the gate, he just picked up his head and looked right through me," said Fitchett. "He was professional. He knew his job. He knew who he was, that he was the man. [Seattle] Slew was a perfect horse in the gate. Affirmed - another horse that did everything right. They didn't beat themselves.

"People think horses don't know what's going on, but they know, trust me," he said. "They know when they are going to race, they know when they do well, and they definitely know when they win. You can see it in their eyes, their faces. The expression changes. I'll go to my grave believing that."

Fitchett said he'll spend a lot of time on his boat on the Chesapeake Bay in retirement. He'll be joined by his wife, Linda, who has four or five more years before retiring as director of transportation for Baltimore County schools.

But Fitchett says he'll come back. He likes his team of Edmund Benson, Edward and Robert Daniels, Jeff and Kevin Dzbynski, Hugo Gracia, Donald Long, Lawrence Martin, Cush McHargue, Marion Naylor, Jose Reyes, Alexander Thomas, Bruce Wagner and Louis Garner Jr.

"You better believe I'm going to miss it," Fitchett said. "I'm torn between a life I've never known, and one where I always worked on holidays and never took too many vacations. But it's a team, and I'm going to miss these guys."

And Pimlico will miss Fitchett.

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