On the wall next to Coley Blind's desk in the back corner of the Pimlico racing office is a small framed black-and-white photograph of the legendary race horse Citation, the day of his walkover in the 1948 Pimlico Special.
A walkover usually only takes place when the favorite is so overwhelming that nobody even bothers to enter another horse to compete, and the lone runner takes a solo victory lap around the track. That's how great Citation was.
In the picture, Eddie Blind, dapper in a fedora, holds Citation's shank with his right hand while cradling his little son Coley, dressed like Spanky from "The Little Rascals," in his left.
Coley Blind, the stakes coordinator at Pimlico and Laurel Park, looks on this photo as a talisman — a good-luck charm as well as reminder of his deep connection to a family born to the racing life.
The past several weeks, Blind, 66, who grew up in Rodgers Forge, Lutherville and Hampton, has needed all the good luck he can get. In a racing office abuzz with activity, he is responsible for putting together the stakes races on Maryland's biggest race day of the year, including the biggest race of all — this Saturday's 140th Preakness Stakes, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown.
"It's not just me; it's everyone who works in this office," said Blind, a gentle and sincere man, who at one time or another has held just about every job possible at a racetrack other than trainer or jockey. "A lot of people put a lot of blood, sweat and tears every day into putting together race cards. I don't put these stakes together by myself. These guys are in here every day helping out. For the past three weeks, we've been in here working ... all except for Easter — 10 hours a day, at least."
A critical role
Anyone who has ever glanced at a racing form or program, knows the sport is as esoteric as it is archaic, with the race results charts and past performances of each horse represented in a forbidding hieroglyphics light years from computer video graphics recent generations take for granted. In this tiny world of exotica, Blind's work is equally as specialized but critical to the racetrack's success.
He is responsible for constantly monitoring horses and races all around the country, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region, to see which ones might fit the stakes program in Maryland. Keeping tabs on a computer but also with a simple black-and-white Composition school notebook, Blind follows the never-ending action in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania until its time to fill one of his own races.
"When my stakes come around that are equivalent to their races, I start calling those people [with horses] to see where they are," Blind said. "I check the charts to see where they're working, to see where they've last run. I go through a lot of information to see if this is a legitimate trainer to call. Did the horse get hurt in its last race? Is he off his usual form? Is there something wrong?"
While typical weekend stakes races are important, Preakness weekend is the be-all and end-all for racing in Maryland. More than $81.9 million was bet on Preakness Day alone last year, $50.2 million on the big race itself.
It's the stakes coordinator's primary job to make sure Preakness day stakes races are as competitive and attractive to bettors and fans as possible.
Blind begins his quest for Preakness Day horses during the winter, visiting tracks in Hot Springs, Ark., and New Orleans to make contact with trainers developing rising 3-year-old stars as well as horses that might support the major stakes races on the undercard.
The morning after the Kentucky Derby, Blind is up early on the backstretch at Churchill Downs, going from barn to barn to personally invite people to bring their horses to Pimlico for the Preakness. Of the 19 that competed in the Run for the Roses this year, however, only three appear headed this way — winner California Chrome, Ride On Curlin and General A Rod.
"I'd like to get at least 10, but it's difficult finding those horses because they don't come back in two weeks like they used to," Blind said. "You go back 20 years, 30 years … two weeks? A horse ran back in two weeks then. Nowadays, they don't do it. They just don't do it."
A charm offensive
With the yearly thoroughbred foal crop declining in the United States, and horses appearing less hearty than in the past, competition has become fierce between different tracks, particularly for the big race cards on the Triple Crown days.
The Derby is the Derby — the world's most famous horse race — and the Belmont Stakes in New York has a race card offering some of the greatest prize money of the year. Sandwiched in between, Pimlico and the Preakness have to be different.
So the track in the Charm City offers a charm offensive.
"The attractions for Maryland and Preakness week are us — Maryland," Blind said. "The way we treat people, welcome them in. The way we try to say, 'Sorry you lost the race, but I hope you had a good time.' We try to make it easy on them because they're under stress."