The truly fashionable at the racetrack

There people feel comfortable to dress in an exaggerated way

April 29, 2011|Jacques Kelly

Each day, there seems to be another story about the arrival of slot machines. We hear about yet another plan for the Russell Street area or what the month's take is in Perryville. I've made a couple of trips to Atlantic City and didn't think much of it. I'd like to see the Hotel Traymore faithfully rebuilt and more saltwater taffy shops open along the boardwalk.

When it comes to wagering, I also like some style, and not the style of what I've seen in a slots parlor. I've devoted many a fine afternoon to watching the horses go around the Maryland landscape, either at Pimlico or Laurel or the timber races of Baltimore and Harford counties. Today is the Maryland Hunt Cup, as well as the Henry Clark Stakes at Pimlico.

There's something about a racetrack that helps people feel comfortable enough to dress in an exaggerated way. I coveted one sport coat last Saturday at the Grand National in Butler. It was aggressive plaid and looked like a blanket. And it was perfect for the occasion. I also like a good women's fashion show at the races. What beats a spring pastel outfit more than a great, slightly ridiculous hat?

When I want a fresh eye on the racetrack set, I look at the watercolor sketches of the late Baltimore artist Aaron Sopher. Throughout his career, Sopher painted women draped in floppy furs and men in wide lapels. He did a whole series of spring Pimlico meets in the 1940s. He caught the happy frenzy of the crowd.

That assembly often includes an array of local celebrities and characters. Over the years I've spotted a cast that includes eccentric department-store heiresses, Orioles executives and society figures with three given names (with a nickname thrown in, too).

A spring afternoon at Old Hilltop wasn't complete unless I spotted Baltimore's ex-Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Jr. and his wife, Nancy, two of racing's most ardent fans. As a couple, they were devoted to each other and truly loved the racing game.

On a handful of occasions — I think my parents wanted me, my brother and sisters to observe table manners (and good waiters) in action — we had a gala lunch in the clubhouse at Pimlico.

This offered an even better fashion show, superb food and the possibility of a five-star celebrity sighting. It was there I saw FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and my all-time best catch, the actress Audrey Meadows. She had on a stunning mink stole and a pair of drop-dead pointy sunglasses. She epitomized style and theatricalism to my 5-year-old eyes. (My father walked into a room at the Atlantic City track one day, maybe 50 years ago, and there was film director Alfred Hitchcock.)

The Pimlico clubhouse's tables were garbed in perfect linen. The menus were printed daily on heavy cardboard stock. The food was served in heavy silverplate vessels — gravy boats for the mayonnaise, little silver dishes for the capers. A salad was delivered with the flourish of a dining room in a New York hotel. Lamb stew, a house specialty, arrived at the table in grand style.

In this golden era of racing, we often took the train to the track — not to Pimlico, of course, but to Laurel or Delaware. Getting to those tracks on the old Baltimore & Ohio was half the fun. Those aged, gray-and-blue coaches were spotlessly clean. Delaware Park was traditionally open in the summer, and the part of the trip over the Susquehanna River was the best.

When the train finally made it back to Baltimore from Delaware Park, it took its time as we passed through the Howard Street Tunnel, emerged in the area near today's Oriole Park and M&T Stadium, and backed into Camden Station. This leg seemed to take forever, but it only made a good day at the races seem even better.

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