Saddlecloth makers get to the bottom of Preakness

Millersville company has been doing job for past several years


And they're off! With ESPN's live announcement at 5 p.m. yesterday of the post positions for the nine horses running in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, three high-tech seamstresses at a tiny Millersville company were set into motion.

Standing over three whirring industrial machines, they were competing in a little-known race of their own: embroidering the horses' names on both sides of each saddlecloth.

All the work had to be completed last night, so the finished, elaborate broadcloth blankets could be displayed at this morning's traditional Alibi Breakfast for owners and trainers at Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore.

After Steve Cornely, owner of the Embroidery Store, called in from home - where he has cable TV - with the scribbled-down post numbers, Joanne Phillips and her daughter Laura and Melissa LeBarron hovered over the humming machines, each spinning a dozen spools of vibrantly colored thread.

While the women had placed each blanket in an old-fashioned hoop to keep the fabric taut on the machines, this wasn't your grandma's embroidery.

Human hands don't actually touch or hem a stitch. They program the automated machines with the size, letters and numbers and typeface that must be sewn onto the rectangular blankets.

In this case, each would bear the post position number, the name of the horse, an American flag, a 131st annual Preakness logo and a starlike symbol for the fight against colon cancer.

The jockeys could brag about the high thread count: The machines punch 850 stitches per minute. Each blanket would have 110,000 stitches before the work was done. "It's all a matter of eyeballing it to get it straight and precise. There is no escape button," Joanne Phillips said.

Most of the work had been completed over the past two weeks, since some of the information on the saddlecloths remains the same from year to year.

The first-lane horse is always red, the No. 2 spot wears white, No. 3 wears royal blue, and so on. The horse's name is the same color as the trim.

The company has the drill down to a science; it has been doing this work each year since 2001, when someone from the Maryland Jockey Club passed the small store in a nondescript plaza 25 miles south of the Pimlico racetrack.

That's why Cornely noted with some disappointment yesterday that the horse that was scratched - Ah Day - had the shortest name.

Embroidering that would have taken a lot less time than the horse that garnered the No. 7 post, Sweetnorthernsaint.

Cornely, 44, opened the business in 1998; the rest of the year, it does team and corporate logos and uniforms. He declined to reveal the terms for this unique job for the Maryland Jockey Club.

Early today, he and Joanne Phillips will deliver the finished saddlecloths to the breakfast, where the trainers are expected to give all manner of reasons why they might lose the race.

As for the Triple Crown race, it's almost secondary. Laura Phillips admitted she roots from home for the horse with the "prettiest" blanket, while Joanne Phillips said she hardly notices who wins.

"It was fun to know the names and see the blankets before everyone else does," Joanne Phillips said. "Sometimes I miss the race because I'm watching the blankets."

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