Charles John 'Chick' Lang dies at 83

Former Pimlico general manager remade the Preakness

  • Charles John "Chick" Lang had deep family roots in horse racing.
Charles John "Chick" Lang had deep family roots…
March 19, 2010|By Mike Klingaman and Kent Baker | Special to The Baltimore Sun

Charles John "Chick" Lang, the longtime general manager of Pimlico Race Course who transformed the Preakness into a premier spectacle, died Thursday at 83. Mr. Lang died of 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 De Francis, former co-owner of the Maryland Jockey Club. "We mourn the passing of an extraordinary individual and Maryland racing icon."

Mr. 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. Mr. Lang spent a lifetime in the sport, working every imaginable job. A native of Baltimore who attended Forest Park High School, he graduated from hot walker and groom to trainer and jockey's agent.

"Chick did everything at the track in his life but ride a horse," said Nancy Lang, his wife of 63 years. "Chick always said he loved racing more than he loved me, and that was OK."

It was as general manager of Pimlico, a job he took in 1969 after spending seven years as Pimlico's director of racing, that Mr. Lang made his biggest mark with an unabashed promotion of the Preakness. In 1971, he persuaded 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 his 20-year tenure as GM, Preakness attendance nearly tripled to 90,000.

He promoted 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, Mr. Lang never lost sight of what was really important, Mr. 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 racetrack managers."

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

The clerks settled in time.

The biggest crisis arrived three years later when Genuine Risk, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby in 65 years, appeared to have been interfered with by Codex entering the stretch run of the Preakness. When Codex and Angel Cordero finished first and survived the foul claim of Genuine Risk jockey Jacinto Vasquez, the owners of the filly, Bert and Diana Firestone, filed a protest against the stewards' decision with the Maryland Racing Commission.

A week dragged on before the original result was upheld. In the meantime, threatening mail poured in to Mr. Lang and the Cohens from people who thought Genuine Risk should have been declared the winner.

Instrumental in the founding of the Maryland Million in 1986, Mr. 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.

Mr. Lang was awarded certificates of distinguished citizenship by three Maryland governors and honored by the National Turf Writers, the Jockey Agents Association and the Legends of Racing.

Besides his wife, the former Nancy Christman, Mr. 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 jockey's agent and turf writer for The 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," Mrs. Lang said.

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