Arundel's Whitman doesn't let wet week soil Pimlico

After careful preparation by director of track maintenance and his staff, jockeys and trainers give the surface rave reviews

May 21, 2011|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

When Dave Whitman arrived at work at 5 a.m. Saturday, he knelt on the track at Pimlico Race Course and grasped a handful of soil.

Glop, it was not. Despite a line of storms that drenched the area for much of the past week, the Preakness would be run on a fast track.

Whitman, director of track maintenance, had fooled nature again.

Not only did Pimlico weather that 11/2 inches of rainfall, the course actually had to be watered between each race Saturday. Trucks sprayed nearly 50,000 gallons of city water on the track to keep down the dust on a day when millions of race fans were watching.

If the horses' footing is a nonfactor in the Preakness, said Whitman, then his maintenance crew has prevailed.

"If everyone goes around the track and comes home safe, then I've done my job," he said. "To me, no news is good news."

From the start Saturday, the course passed muster with jockeys and trainers.

"It's awesome," said Xavier Perez, who rode No Brakes to victory in the second race.

"Very good track," said Carlos E. Lopez Jr., who took third in the race. "For the first couple of weeks here, it was a little heavy, but it keeps getting better and better."

Pimlico doesn't play favorites, trainer Todd Pletcher said.

"It's a very 'fair' track. There's no bias; it lets you run honestly, and that's just what you want," said Pletcher, who had both the winner and third-place finisher in the fourth race. His Preakness entry, Dance City, finished fifth.

It was the third Preakness as track overseer for Whitman, 47, a Laurel resident who attended Arundel. He had never set foot on a race course until he turned 20, when he quit his job selling auto parts to work as a laborer at Laurel Park.

Now Whitman commands a staff of five whose job is to maintain one of the three key tracks in America. Each spring, they haul in 500 tons of new material to replace the dirt that blew or washed away in winter.They harrow, or drag, the track between each race to smooth the top 31/2 inches of soil, which consists of 85 percent sand and 15 percent silt and clay. Then they roll it every night with 5-ton rubber tires to pack it down.

The storms that pelted the region last week could have played havoc at Pimlico, Whitman said.

"The heavy rains are kind to us. Hard rains help pack down the track," he said. "It's the light, soaking rains that are the killers — good for gardens, bad for us. But either way, this track dries pretty well."

His is a job on which you're always learning, Whitman said.

"My first Preakness, I was scared to death," he said, "So many things can happen. Mother Nature doesn't play by any set of rules. It's not a job you can teach somebody. Something new comes up all the time — you've got to experience it.

"You roll with the punches and hope you're right more often than you're wrong."

Sometimes, he said, the work presents welcome surprises. Some years ago, after harrowing the track at Laurel Park, Whitman found a $100 bill stuck on one of the tines of the machine.

"It had pierced Ben Franklin's head," he said. "I turned the money in, but nobody claimed it, so I gave it to my daughter, who went to Toys R Us."

Seldom has Whitman left the track with winnings. What horse did he pick in Saturday's Preakness?

"I don't bet," he said. "I don't like losing my money."

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