Preakness 2011: A woman at the reins

Georganne Hale is Madam Secretary at Pimlico

May 19, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

By now, Georganne Hale has seen it all at the Preakness — so much so that the only thing she has come to expect is the unexpected.

But whatever happens this Saturday, it'll be hard to top the thrill of two years ago, when Hale turned from Pimlico's top racing official into just another fan blown away by Rachel Alexandra's victory over a field of male horses.

"Just because she was a filly," Hale said of why that's one of her favorite Preakness memories. "And she was running against the boys."

In a quieter and less heralded way, Hale has run through gender barriers of her own. As the Maryland Jockey Club's racing secretary, she is the top female official in her male-dominated industry. While there is at least one other woman serving as a racing secretary — Allison De Luca at Tampa Bay Downs — Hale's position at a Triple Crown track gives her a prominence rare for women in her field.

But at 51, and after 27 years at Pimlico, Hale's gender is hardly the first or only thing that comes to mind as she wrangles the endless details that go into putting on the Preakness. While she handles public events like Wednesday's post position draws, much of her work is behind the scenes; she lines up horses for every race during the Pimlico and Laurel Park seasons, manages the stable areas, supervises the race officials and track staff and writes the condition books — the so-called bibles that outline such things as the length and type of race, age group of eligible horses and purses.

When the Preakness comes around, her already details-oriented job intensifies.

All this week, her desk and cellphones buzzed insistently with calls and texts. Staff members stacked up outside her door as she juggled questions, like whether a certain riding helmet was allowed or which flight a Baltimore-bound jockey would be on.

"Is anything easy?" she mockingly wailed at one point.

And, always, there were requests, from friends of friends or to return favors, for tickets, parking passes and those magical all-access credentials.

"Everyone's your friend at Preakness," she says wryly.

Her priority on this particular morning was finding a substitute horse to race on Black-Eyed Susan Day, which features races and events promoting the breast cancer group Susan G. Komen for the Cure. With a half-hour to go before the lineup had to be printed, the heat was on.

Staff streamed in and out of her office, which was temporarily awash in pink from the promotional whips, robes and such set out for the female jockeys. Hale and the other employees were playing hardball, repeatedly calling back owners and trainers and offering goodies — Preakness tickets, free radio ads, straw even — until they got a horse to enter, with minutes to spare.

"You gotta wheel and deal," said Hale, who managed to find a couple more VIP badges in a drawer and get an extra table squeezed into the sold-out Turfside Terrace to keep people happy.

Even as racing, like any other business, has computerized operations, much of it still transpires on a person-to-person basis. And that is the part Hale enjoys the most: dealing with trainers and jockeys and all the others drawn into this world by their love of the ponies.

Hale grew up in Sparks, the daughter of a trainer, Bobby Hale. She started riding horses at the age of 4, and seemingly knows everybody in this world — something that has served her well during her career.

"She's a horse person to start with," said Katharine Voss, a longtime Howard County horse trainer and breeder. "She understands what people go through. But she also knows when people aren't being straight with her, and she doesn't mind dealing with it."

Voss is among the trainers Hale worked for as an exercise rider and assistant as she was growing up, and she helped Hale get her first job at Pimlico in 1984. Hale started as an assistant horse identifier — matching horses' tattoos with those on file — and rising through various racing judge positions. She became assistant racing secretary and then in 2000 rose to her current post.

"She's seen it all. She's done it all," said Ross Peddicord, a former Baltimore Sun racing writer who recently was named executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. "She knows where all the bodies are buried, and she probably buried some of them herself."

Hale says there are probably so few women at the top levels of racing because of the "toughness" required. Or rather, "strong personality," as she says of herself. She is comfortable wielding the power she has, such as over the stalls at Pimlico, which can be intimidating.

"Trainers will run over the top of you," she said. "You have to stand your ground. Everybody will try you, just like any place in the world. But at this point, people know me, I know people. I've been here so long."

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