Relax, have a beer and kick back at the track

May 07, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

One day in March, a guy from Harford County went to breakfast at Jimmy's in Fells Point for the first time ever, then visited a Coast Guard cutter at Thames and Broadway. This fellow does not strike me as easily amused, but you'd have thought he'd been to Disney World and back. His wife, daughter and fellow travelers from Baltimore's sprawling outback were delighted by the adventure.

"Twenty years in Baltimore and we've never been to Fells Point," he said. "What else have I missed?"

Like - just guessing - everything?

But that's OK. That's life around the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin. Unless they work downtown, a lot people who live in the suburbs of Baltimore see little need to come here except for maybe an Orioles or Ravens game, or a visit to Harborplace. They're otherwise occupied - browsing the Internet, watching television, driving their kids to soccer games - or, for lack of a clinical term, afraid. Studies have shown that two out of three Americans use television as their main source of news. Consider the Baltimore that's presented nightly on local television news, and there's little wonder people feel that way.

But there's a lot more to this than fear.

Those of us who live here take the familiar for granted. We forget what we have.

A whole oyster season comes and goes, and I'll forget to indulge a cherished annual ritual - a dozen with cold beer at Cross Street Market among friends and good-natured, oyster-slurping strangers. I keep meaning to put the bocce team back together for the St. Anthony Festival in Little Italy; I've had this intention for about seven years now. I haven't listened to jazz in the New Haven Lounge in at least five.

You know it's a great place, despite the winos on the parking lot, but when was the last time you actually went shopping at Lexington Market? There are people who still express regret that Haussner's closed in 1999 - even though they hadn't gone there since 1979.

It's May again. The horses are running at Old Hilltop, and where are you?

It's nice to be able to brag about Baltimore hosting the Preakness, but when was the last time you went to its home, Pimlico Race Course?

Do you ever think about taking an afternoon off to sit in the sun and make a few bets?

I know: It involves money and gambling. So does the Lottery. So does the stock market. The next azalea bush you buy could die.

Simple rule: When you go to Pimlico, take only money you can afford to lose, and leave the ATM card at home.

The other day, my friends - I'm going to call them by their track names - Beatle Frank, Montana Kid and Kishka Burger had lunch in the Terrace Dining Room overlooking the race course. The food was excellent and reasonably priced, and we were able to chat and laugh, eat, study the charts, engage in some amateurish handicapping and bet on a few races.

We had a great time.

The first two women who walked past our table were chewing and snapping gum. The Red Hat Divas were there, a group of women of a certain age in outrageous purple dresses and large red hats. Serious bettors sat by themselves, tables covered with newspapers and notes. Through the large windows of the dining room, we could see not only beautiful 4-year-olds making the clubhouse turn, but, below us, a middle-age guy in loud Hawaiian shirt engaged in a mating ritual with a young woman in a halter top. (Beatle Frank concluded that the guy succeeded in his romantic overtures; he and the woman were gone by the sixth race.) I was reminded - and am reminded every time I go to Pimlico - how much I enjoy the track scene, the opportunity it presents to see superb animals running on dirt and turf and to observe all kinds of people.

I should go more often. I was so painfully rusty I had to ask the nice fellow at the pari-mutuel window to remind me how to box a trifecta. I picked the first three finishers in one race, and that hasn't happened in years. I didn't have much other luck and dropped about $40.

Winning isn't it for me.

I visit Pimlico just to sit in the sun, drink a beer and watch horses. I've taken my wife and kids on Mother's Day. It's all good, if you don't become obsessive and stupid about the betting.

We keep hearing warnings about the demise of Pimlico, and there has been talk about the owners of the track moving the Preakness.

Racing barons keep saying Maryland must put slot machines at tracks to save the thoroughbred industry. I'm sick of that debate; let them have slots, if it will keep the Preakness and Pimlico here.

More important is the public's connection with the track. I don't know what it will take to bring more people back - free parking and admission would be good, maybe some night racing - but I do know this: Wherever you live, Harford County or Harford Road, it would do you and the track some good to make a visit to Pimlico soon.

"Baltimoreans love to reminisce about things that were here and are now gone," Kishka Burger said the other day. "They especially like to remember things they never did."

I will probably burn in hell for suggesting it, but I'm suggesting you play hooky one afternoon and go to the track. You don't want to live here, or near here, and miss this.

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