Unbridled devotion

The stories of 10 Marylanders whose lives are intertwined with horse racing

preakness stakes

May 20, 2007|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,Sun Reporter

ONE RIDES A HORSE TO THE FINISH LINE IN FRONT OF A CROWD of cheering fans, and another is aboard when the only spectators are the early-morning denizens of the racetrack. *One is in charge of getting the thoroughbreds out of the starting gate, and another quite literally helps get them started, matching up sires and mares. *One sits in a corporate office, running the place, and another stands guard at a gate late into the night. *Different people, different jobs, yet all the same in one important way -- their lives are entwined with horse racing. Their hearts beat to the rhythm of hoofbeats. *On racing's most important date in Maryland, Preakness Day, The Sun is telling the stories of 10 people to represent the many who have been bitten by the racing bug and don?t want any cure.

Donnie Long , assistant starter

It was a call from his grandfather, Eddie Blind, that got Donnie Long into the business. "Behind the scenes, my mom had asked him to call me after I graduated from high school on Long Island," Long said. "She didn't know what was going to become of me, and my grandfather was the starter here in Maryland for 34 years before he retired in 1980.He called and offered me a job.

"I thought it was going to be as a hot walker or rubbing horses, and I said, ?No, thanks.? But he said it was as assistant starter and that it paid $200 a week. Two hundred a week in 1964. I felt like a millionaire."

Long, 51, was simply going into the family business. His uncle Frankie was a starter at Timonium and his uncle Coley still works in the racing office.

Donnie Long grew up hearing wonderful racing stories, and though he might not have realized it,he was forming an understanding and an attachment to the game.

He has grown fond of the animals he handles,especially the 2-year-olds who develop their skills in the starting gate and learn gate etiquette through his teaching.

"You see them slowly progress until they're ready to run in a race," he said."It's then you can see the finished productof your labor."

For Long, it has been a dangerous career. Each of his rotator cuffs has been operated on twice, and he is "one more bad horse" from a career-ending injury. Because of that,he has become the designated guy on the back gate on race days,closing the doors behind the horses.

The last horse he held in the gate at the Preakness was Funny Cide, the 2003 winner. But Long said Preakness Day is special,no matter what your job.

"However small, you're a little part of racing history," he said. "And no matter how long you've been doing it, it's a thrill.When I'm standing [by] the front of the gate and hearing the words," Lock 'em," my heart races and I?m breathing quicker. 'Wow. This is it.!'"

Stewart Nichel, owner

You don't get much more new age than owner Stewart Nichel, who relies on his Web site to attract investors for his horses. And yet you won't get much more old-fashioned than theway Nichel first became attached to horse racing.

"I was 10," he said. "And horses were still running at Timonium as part of Maryland's regular racing circuit.Every day, I'd walk home from Timonium Elementary School and I'd stand outside the racetrack fence on York Road and watch the last race of the day. I just loved it.

"Sometimes, I'd sit there, not too far from the horses, and listen to the thundering hooves. ... I just thought they were beautiful. To see them run, it was more about the beauty and my fascination with the horse than anything else."

Sometimes, his father would take him to the racetrack and he?d collect non-winning tickets and bring them home.

"Then we'd invite all our friends over and have our own races," he said. "We had the tickets, and we'd just run around the backyard and have our own horse races."

Nichel, an entrepreneur, co-founded a company called OTG Software,which was acquired in 2002, setting him up for life.

Now, at 36, he supplements his income with real estate ventures and has fun with his racing partnerships.

His late father also owned horses, though not successfully.

"Dad didn't live to see his first winner," Nichel said. 'We won a week after Dad died. He didn't pick the right horses, but he had a good time."

Nichel,who lives in Potomac with his wife and twin daughters, took a more aggressive approach,buying a couple of horses that turned out well and his stable got on a roll. It grew to as many as 10 horses and produced Smart and Noble, a two-time state champion.

Though Nichel has won 85 races and his horses have banked $1.5 million in purses, he said owners shouldn?t be counting on a big return.

"I tell everyone who is interested in investing,don't do it unless you can afford to lose the money you?re investing,? he said. ?There is potential for gain, but I'm very clear it's for entertainment. The mind-set has to be fun. Making money can't be the reason for going into it."

Tana Aubrey, assistant trainer

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