Catering to the Preakness crowd

SunSpot Staff

In nearly three decades of serving drinks at the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, Barbara Brailford doesn't have too much trouble keeping up with varying tastes.

"Each year, it changes," said Brailford, 54, the racetrack's longest-serving bartender. "One year, it was double Absolut [vodka] and cranberry. I came home that night doing double Absoluts with cranberry in my head.

"The next year, it was double Absolut with grapefruit," she added. "Three years ago, Bloody Marys were the thing. So, I ordered a lot of Bloody Mary mix, but they didn't drink it. That year was the Absolut and cranberry. People will change up on you."

Brailford, a West Baltimore resident, began working at Pimlico part time in 1976. She became full time in December 1981.

Saturday was Brailford's 27th Preakness Stakes.

"It's fun," she said earlier last week in preparing for the big day. "You get caught up in everyone having a good time. I meet some nice people coming through here. It's almost like family."

But Ruby Webb has Brailford beaten by a few years. Webb, 68, has worked the concession stands the longest at Pimlico -- 32 years.

After working on-call or part time, she came aboard full time in December 1981. Webb, known as "Miss Ruby" or "Rube" to many of her customers, has missed only one Preakness.

"That was seven years ago because I had surgery," said Webb, who lives near Catonsville. "They called me from [Pimlico] that day to see how I was doing. I watched it on TV. I hated missing it."

For Preakness Day 2003, Brailford was on the job early, about 7:30 a.m., as she had to acquaint the three other bartenders working with her on Pimlico's grandstand level. The bar and concession stands opened at 9.

Webb started at 11 a.m. She did not work her normal stand on the racetrack's mezzanine level. She walked the expanse, supervising junior workers -- ensuring that supplies were plentiful and customers were served promptly. That's been her Preakness Day task in recent years.

The crowd inside Pimlico gradually developed on Saturday, Brailford and Webb said, slowed by the wet weather and enhanced security procedures. The situation changed by midafternoon.

"It's been really busy today," Webb said while making her rounds about 2 p.m. "There's a lot of people here. It's tiring, even if you're trying to get where you want to go. There's so many people."

At Brailford's bar, the pace was steady -- glasses of draft Budweiser, shots of Absolut vodka, double shots of Tanqueray gin, a can or two glasses of Heineken, a couple of packs of Newport cigarettes.

Two women in khaki suits and straw hats ordered up Chardonnay.

"He says we're not supposed to do it," one of the women said, chuckling, referring to an admonishment from her husband on her not going overboard with the beverages.

"That's what he thinks," the other said. They laughed.

Brailford poured their wine. The women peered curiously at their glasses.

"Is there a problem, ladies?" Brailford asked.

"It's not all the way up to the top of the glass this year," one woman said.

As Brailford checked the glass, the other woman chimed in, "The glasses are just bigger this year."

Brailford playfully shook her head. They all laughed. The women left a $3 tip.

"Even if people come in and drink, they don't get belligerent and they don't get overbearing," Brailford said in planning for Saturday. "They're just enjoying the day."

It is this professionalism that makes Brailford and Webb stellar employees, said Brenda Handleman, vice president and general manager of Maryland Turf Caters Inc., which took over food and beverage operations at Pimlico in 1992.

"You just don't find many Rubys and Barbaras today," Handleman said. "For a lot of people today, they view food service and see the sacrifices they have to make -- Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and times like [the Preakness].

"This is not a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 job," Handleman said. "When you get people like Barbara and Ruby, you treasure them."

Maryland Turf Caterers, a unionized operation, has about 150 full- and part-time employees, she said. On Preakness Day, as many as 1,400 people are working at Pimlico, which includes individual food vendors.

According to Handleman, customers purchased 8,500 hot dogs, 1,000 hamburgers, 1,400 orders of French fries, 650 orders of chicken tenders and 2,600 slices of pizza during last year's Preakness. They also consumed 5,200 cups of soft drinks and 1,000 cups of ice cream.

Vendors also sold 22,000 Black-Eyed Susans, the official Preakness drink, she said. Catering officials also ordered 4,000 pounds of crabmeat for cakes to serve in Pimlico's five dining rooms -- the Terrace Dining Room, Hall of Fame Room, Sports Palace, Triple Crown Room and the private Maryland Jockey Club Dining Room. The rooms serve a total of 1,600 people.

Figures on alcohol sales at last year's Preakness were unavailable, Handleman said.

In addition, about 3,500 people were being served this year in the corporate village on Pimlico's infield, she said.

"I would think that they've been here this long because they like what they do," said Handleman, who has worked for caterers at Pimlico and at Laurel Park Race Course for 42 years. "They like what they do, and they like where they're doing it."

That went without saying, Webb and Brailford said, and Saturday was no exception.

It's 5:50 p.m. -- post time for the Preakness, the 12th race, is 6:12 -- and the lines are as deep at Brailford's bar as they are at the betting windows. Intense, the bartender's pouring, mixing, serving, ringing up the cash register and collecting money.

Brailford's tip box -- covered by a paper towel near the register -- is fattening up, too.

"They really work hard," one customer said, after his group decided -- in cellular telephone conference call -- to put their dollars on Scrimshaw, which drew the No. 2 post. The horse later finished third.

"They put up with us," the man said. "We're all complaining and giving 'em a hard time. We're just having a good time. It's a real party."

Meanwhile, Webb has just completed another round of concession stand checks. She rested briefly under the rows of overhead television monitors.

"Well, it's winding down now," she said. It's 6:07 p.m. The betting windows were closed, and people staked out their spots to watch the race. "It's almost over."

Funny Cide, the favoriteat 9-5, broke in the turn before leaving the field behind by 9 3/4 lengths. The resounding victory quelled concerns raised over the gelding's surprise win in the Kentucky Derby. Midway Road, a Kentucky-bred horse with 20-1 odds, finished second. Scrimshaw, No. 3, had odds of 5-1.

Just minutes later, the mass exodus began -- to the betting windows, to the doors leading out of Pimlico, to the bar.

"I didn't think he was going to do it," Brailford said, referring to Funny Cide, as she readied for the next rush. "I wouldn't have put my money on him."

This rush, though, was tepid.

"People are leaving now," she said. "The big race is over. My feet are killing me."

So were Webb's. "My feet are tired," she said. "It's been very busy."

"We went through a lot of Hennessey, Jack Daniels and Absolut," Brailford said. "I went through 1 1/2 cases of Bloody Mary mix."

Taking stock, both Brailford and Webb said Saturday's crowd was not particularly unusual for Preakness Day.

"It was a typical Preakness," Brailford said. "It's hard to say why.

"It wasn't as big as yesterday's crowd," she added, referring to Friday, which was Black-Eyed Susan Day. She nodded her head. "Today was a mixed day."

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