In Pimlico's newly refurbished Terrace Dining Room, customers can start their meal with a cup of chili or the soup of the day before moving on to an entree of grilled Atlantic salmon or jumbo lump crab cakes.
The menu has been carefully designed by a team of caterers and prepared by a group of cooks overseen by chef Jerome H. Herbert, a Johnson & Wales University graduate who is a veteran of hotel kitchens and catering businesses.
A few paces away, past the jockeys' silks room, there's another eating place. This one has just three tables. The room resembles a college dormitory lounge with televisions, leather sofas and a pingpong table - except there is a nearly life-size horse mannequin in the center of it.
Working at a grill behind a counter at the far end of the room is just one cook - Margarita Orellana, a 31-year-old native of Chile.
She also prepares chili, salads and homemade soups. She shops for fresh ingredients each day and makes her entrees from scratch. But it isn't unusual for her customers to pass on her dishes and ask instead for Popsicles, candy bars or crackers.
Her customers are the jockeys who ride at Pimlico Race Course, men and women who constantly must watch what they eat.
Despite the weight obsession of her customers, Orellana doesn't serve only light fare in her kitchen. She is proud of her pastas, chili and meatballs. The menu is typical of a corner carryout: burgers, BLTs, soups and wraps.
"The food is always good," says jockey Dyn Panell. "She knows what you want."
"I love her chili," adds jockey Kaymarie Kreidel. "And I'm a big fan of her chicken salad."
Orellana cooks for about 40 jockeys and Pimlico staff members every race day. The daughter of a horse trainer, she moved with her father to Maryland when she was a teenager. She liked to cook, so it seemed natural to take a job as a helper in the jockey's kitchen at Laurel. When the head cook left, she took over as the food vendor and provides meals for the jockeys at Laurel, Pimlico and Timonium racetracks.
Not all tracks have cooks for the jockeys, and even when they do, the cooks rarely will make meals to order the way Orellana will, says jockey Dominic Terry. "She's the best I've ever had."
Before the afternoon races, jockeys wander out of the locker room and up to the counter, sometimes wearing nothing but a towel, to order their lunches. Orellana smiles, and jokes, often conversing with them in Spanish.
"Here it's not like a job, it's like a family," she says.
But she worries about her customers. She knows many of the jockeys have eating disorders and abuse their bodies to stay slim.
"It's very hard," she said. "Some people, they eat a salad and they put on weight."
Sometimes she thinks she would like to work in a restaurant where she could cook more interesting food, but she says she would miss cooking for the jockeys.
She opens for breakfast each day at 8 a.m. and closes when the last race is run, about 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.
The cooks for the Terrace Dining Room and the track's other public eating places begin arriving about 8 a.m. to prepare lunch, which is served from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. each race day.
This year, the menu has been tweaked. New offerings include chili, shrimp cocktail and crab Louis, jumbo shrimp and a grilled Reuben. On Sunday, the track offers a popular buffet.
The newly renovated dining room is painted a pale yellow, and new carpeting helps keep the cavernous room quiet. "We're striving to do what the customers want," says Herbert.
The goal is to serve good American food quickly so fans can enjoy the races. "We hope they'll come for the fun of a racetrack and to have a nice meal," he says.
The improvements are being noticed. "Food is better and more plentiful," says Dorothea Bristow of Towson, who was on an outing recently to the track with her church group and two daughters.
Most at the table had ordered the crab cakes and proclaimed them "very good."
Gail Pickering of Roland Park had ordered the steak. "This year it was greatly improved," she said. "Last year it was like part of the horse. This time, it was grilled nicely and had a nice flavor."
On Preakness Day this Saturday, the racing fans will sip on Black-Eyed Susans and dine on crab cakes and prime rib in the Terrace Dining Room.
Orellana also will be serving crab cakes along with crab soup and a salad. Some of the jockeys will be too nervous to eat, she says, but on that day the jockeys' kitchen is filled with other customers - former jockeys, family members, sports reporters - who will appreciate her cooking.
Although she hires a helper, the event means long hours in the kitchen making between 350 and 400 crab cakes. She will start early Friday and work nonstop until the race is over Saturday evening.
"It's very tiring," she says, but adds, "I look forward to it. It's a fun day."
Black-Eyed Susan Serves 2
1 ounce vodka
1 ounce Mount Gay rum
1/2 ounce Cointreau
6 ounces orange juice
3 ounces pineapple juice
garnish: pineapple wedge, orange slice or cherry
Mix ingredients (except garnish) together and serve over crushed ice. Garnish with a wedge of pineapple, an orange slice or a cherry.
- Maryland Jockey Club
Per serving: 146 calories; 1 gram protein; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 17 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 2 milligrams sodium