Chick Lang, longtime Pimlico GM, dies at 83

Preakness attendance tripled during his 20-year tenure

March 18, 2010|By Mike Klingaman and Kent Baker | mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Charles John (Chick) Lang, the long-time general manager of Pimlico Race Course who transformed the Preakness into a spectacle of nationwide stature, died Thursday at 83. Lang succumbed to what his family said were natural causes at The Pines, a nursing home in Easton.

"Chick was Mr. Preakness, a horseman through and through, who loved racing to the very core of his being," said Karen DeFrancis, former co-owner of the Maryland Jockey Club. "We mourn the passing of an extraordinary individual and Maryland racing icon."

Lang had deep family roots in horse racing -- his grandfather, John Mayberry, trained 1903 Kentucky Derby winner Judge Himes, and his father, also named Chick, won the 1928 Derby aboard Reigh Count. Lang spent a lifetime in the sport, working every imaginable job. A native of Baltimore, he graduated from hot walker and groom to trainer and jockeys agent.

"Chick did everything at the track in his life but ride a horse," said Nancy Lang, his wife of 63 years.

But it was as general manager of Pimlico, a job he took in 1969, that Lang made his biggest mark with an unabashed promotion of the Preakness. In 1971, he convinced the track's owners, Ben and Herman Cohen, to open the infield on Preakness Day to revelry. Targeting teenagers and young adults, he turned the infield into a kaleidoscope of rock bands, lacrosse games, betting and imbibing.

During Lang's 20-year tenure as GM, Preakness attendance nearly tripled to 90,000.

He plugged the Preakness year-round, those who knew him said.

"He'd wear a khaki flak jacket to the Kentucky Derby covered with Preakness pins and other paraphernalia, and was a P.T. Barnum-esque promoter of the race," said Ross Peddicord, co-publisher of Maryland Life Magazine and a former racing writer for The Sun.

"Chick was a marketing genius," said Lou Raffetto, CEO of the National Steeplechase Association. "Chick took the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, which had gotten lost between Kentucky and New York, and made it into the greatest sporting event in the state of Maryland."

Showmanship aside, Lang never lost sight of what was really important, Raffetto said.

"He always looked at the racetrack from a horseman's perspective," he said. "Not that he didn't care about the patrons, but Chick cared about horsemen more than most race track managers."

When, in 1977, a strike by mutuel clerks at Pimlico threatened the running of the Preakness, Lang proclaimed, "We're going to run [the race] if it has to be run down Howard Street."

The clerks settled in time.

Lang resigned from his post in 1989, settled in Oxford and, for two decades, worked as a racing consultant for several tracks nationwide. He retired last year, in poor health. Beside his wife, the former Nancy Christman, Lang is survived by a daughter, Deborah Tessier, of Monkton; a sister, June Rossi, of Coral Gables, Fla.; six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Charles Robert Lang, a former jockeys agent and turf writer for the Baltimore Evening Sun who died in 1994.

No memorial services are planned.

"Chick's wishes were to be cremated, and to have his ashes sprinkled in the winner's circle at Pimlico," Nancy Lang said.

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