Pimlico barber has pole position

Ted Ambrose has been providing haircuts and good company for 26 years at Pimlico Race Course.

May 18, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY | SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTER

For 26 years, Ted the Barber has been keeping shop here at Pimlico Race Course, using the same antiquated vacuum hose to suck up hair and watching the same customers trudge in, albeit with less and less hair each time.

He is Ted Ambrose, a 76-year-old mainstay at a place where mainstays named Gelo and Doc and King abound.

If Pimlico were Cheers, this is clearly their Norm.

"Everybody knows Ted," says Joseph Poag, chief investigator for the Maryland Racing Commission, plunked down in the barber chair on a recent morning as Ambrose clips and cuts and buzzes away. "He hasn't changed a bit."

As the buzz of Preakness reverberates around Pimlico, Ambrose might be just about the only one not prepared for an avalanche of business.

Sure, he's as excited for the big day as anyone else, and he has some customers from outside Baltimore who drop in for a cut at Preakness time. "They think it brings them luck," he said.

But in general, he knows, "People don't come out to get a haircut. Seventy-five percent of the people here don't even know that there's a barbershop here."

Oh, but the regulars do.

Men like Sonny Sonneborn, a retired parimutuel teller who comes in and sweeps up the hair for Ambrose, and Mike Hutton, a 56-year-old retired postal clerk and now a Pimlico fixture, placing his bets four days a week.

"Meet me at the barbershop" is a common saying around here.

The barbershop is a room where the only tip-off is the signature red, white and blue pole.

There is a tape recorder with Ambrose's music, old-school stuff like Frank Sinatra tunes. No mousse or gel, just some Miss Beck Super hold hairspray that looks like it hasn't been used in, say, 26 years.

But there is more than just hair cutting going on.

Men, even a woman or two, stumble in and out. They plunk down change for coffee and doughnuts. Some holler "hi" and "bye," and it's back to making picks. Others stay to talk.

George Hofferbert, an inspector for the Maryland Racing Commission, comes for the conversation. "I don't have much to work with," the 59-year-old says, smiling sheepishly, when asked whether he gets his hair cut.

Ambrose is there for them all, always ready for some ribbing, never shy to bark out a cliche or spout an opinion.

On the Army: "I think we ought to be like Israel. When you turn 18, everyone oughta serve two years in the Army. Men and women."

On gambling: "Everyone loses in the end. You might hit a race or two, but by the year's end, you lose. And yet they keep coming back for more."

On barbering fashions: "I figure every 20 years the same fashion comes back. It reverts itself."

No one knows exactly how or when the barbershop tradition got started in Pimlico. Ambrose took over after Ralph, who took it over from Leighton.

Ambrose kind of fell into the job. He was working part time as a masseur at the track, helping out Ralph. When Ralph left, the opening posed an opportunity.

And so he shifted to full-time barber at both thoroughbred racetracks - Pimlico and Laurel Park - as well as the Bowie Training Center, inheriting the space and tools of his trade.

It was his fourth career.

"You always have to keep an ace in a hole," says Ambrose, sitting in one of his two old-fashioned barber chairs. "Never quit a job unless you got another job, another ace in the hole. Right, Joe?"

Now a Pasadena resident, Ambrose grew up in South Baltimore with seven brothers and a sister. "I'm the seventh child, born on the seventh day of the seventh month," he says.

He went from the Army to working for the railroad to the fire department, finally falling into the barber trade in the 1960s. He started out cutting hair in Pasadena when a cut cost 80 cents.

At Pimlico, the cuts started at $5 a head, growing to $8 and most recently $10 ("Special for you," he's fond of saying).

He has a regular coterie of clients, ranging from jockeys and backstretch workers, to horse trainers and owners, to the regular patrons who come in with sad tales and vices.

Ambrose doesn't tell them how to live their lives.

"Oh, you always hear the problems," he says. "Sometimes I feel like crying. But my forte is never tell another person how to spend his money."

He, after all, learned the hard way. He won't say exactly how much money he lost, just that he used to "bet like a nut."

"I play a bet once in a while but I don't do it like I used to," says Ambrose. "I was never taking anything home."

Everyone continues to ask him for tips on betting, but Ambrose claims he doesn't dole out advice.

He used to do the barber's tip of the day on the track's television broadcast but stopped after a year.

"I was lousy, that's why I stopped," he says. "I got so much abuse and criticism. I didn't mind. I loved it."

Business is OK when it comes to haircutting. He has about a dozen customers a day.

"I don't have to make a lot of money. Just want to make enough money to buy a steak once in a while, drink some top-shelf liquor and go on a cruise," Ambrose says.

He is not really in it for the money. He loves his job. This track. The people here.

"I'm not leavin,'" he says. "I figure they'll take me out in a body bag. That's the only way they'll get me out of here."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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