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."
Churchill Downs caught a world of bad publicity this past month for the way it treated the people running horses on Derby Day. Tickets, when available, to horsemen, owners and their friends and family cost $200 a piece. A table for nine in the dining room Derby Day cost $42,000.
"First of all, they don't have to pay to get in to watch their horses," Blind said of the way Pimlico treats connections on Preakness Day. "We have reservations for them."
Horsemen and owners running in the Preakness Stakes are welcome to bring almost as many guests as they like to the Preakness Village in the infield for free. Pimlico management will often rent trainers cars if requested. This kind of hospitality helps Blind do his job. He knows track management is trying to help him get horses to run.
Blind was born in Jamaica Hospital in New York, while his father was working as an assistant to George Cassidy, who oversaw the starting gates at New York tracks for 53 years.
The Blind family lineage in racing on his father's side runs long: Blind said his great-grandfather owned race horses in England. The family emigrated to Canada, and his grandfather trained for the Royal Canadian governor of British Columbia. Blind's father, Eddie, played a part in a bit of legendary racing history, revived in recent years by author Laura Hillenbrand with her bestseller "Seabiscuit" and the ensuing movie.
"If you ever saw the original match race — the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race — and they showed you the pictures, George Cassidy started that race," Blind said of the historic 1938 "Match of the Century" at Pimlico that drew 40,000 fans to the track and 40 million more listeners across the world, according to numerous sources. "In the book, they said two assistant starters came down from New York. One was Cecil Phillips and one was my father.
"If you look on the video, standing in the back is a big man wearing a big fedora and jodhpurs and high boots. That's my dad," Blind said.
Blind's uncle, Eric, was a jockey who rode for Colonel Edward R. Bradley, the leading thoroughbred owner and breeder in the south in the first part of the 20th century. Eric Blind rode Bag and Baggage when he won the Louisiana Derby. He also rode in the Preakness and Kentucky Derby.
"He went on to be a starter and a steward, and he's in the Hall of Fame at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. It's just been a family business," Blind said.
The family moved down from New York to Maryland, which Blind said was a midpoint between the Northeastern tracks and ones in Florida.
Blind graduated from Calvert Hall College High School and when asked about which college he attended, he said, "Several. I never completed any of them because I was working.'
He began his racing career by working, like his dad, on the starting gate, helping horses safely load, before moving into jobs in the racing office. He has worked at Pimlico, Laurel Park, Timonium, Monmouth Park and Delaware Park as well as bygone outposts — Liberty Bell, Marlboro, and Hagerstown.
Blind has done it all — assistant starter, starter, paddock judge, patrol judge, placing judge, clerk of scales, fill-in steward, assistant racing secretary. He even worked for the National Steeplechase Association for a while.
"He can do anything in the office," said Blind's boss, long-time Pimlico racing secretary Georganne Hale. "He's probably done every job in the office. I can rely on him to be able to do anything."
In 1989, Blind, who has been married three times, left the racetrack life for 11 years, going into contracting briefly and then opening an insurance business. During that time, he worked as an assistant softball coach for now-closed Towson Catholic High School.
He kept his hand in the game by working the 10-day meet at Timonium, which he calls "summer camp."
"When I left to be a civilian for those years, I don't regret it," he said. "I got to see my daughter grow up and got to know my other two daughters better."
"Summer camp," however, reeled him back in, along with Hale.
"I can't remember how many years he was gone to the big, bad world," she said, "and then he came back."
Blind has an excellent reputation in his office and around racing. Tony Dutrow, a top 20 trainer nationally who used to live in Clarksville, said Blind, along with Andrew Byrne in New York, is one of the best stakes coordinators in the country.
"The racing family he comes from? He understands it thoroughly," Dutrow said. "He lets us know what the races are going to be and what to expect. Coley has always been a fantastic gentleman as long as I've known him."
Hale, however, said Blind is no angel.
"He has his bad days," she said. "Years ago, when we worked for [former racing secretary] Larry Abundi, Coley kicked a pie all the way across the room on Thanksgiving once. He was throwing a little fit. I don't remember why. He looked like [Ravens kicker] Justin Tucker kicking that pie. I think he's outgrown those little tempers, or I think his wife has made him outgrow them."
This past week, May 7 was the final day for horsemen around the country to nominate to the Preakness Day card. Blind showed up at his office at 6:45 a.m. and found 35 emails waiting with entries from around the country — a good start to the day.
That afternoon, people were zipping around the racing office in a whirlwind, with work on race cards for the days leading up to Saturday overlapping with Preakness business. Unlike the seriousness in some racing offices at tracks around the country, the air at Pimlico was filled with excitement and good-natured ribbing.
"I work for great people," said Blind, right in the middle of the action. "Georganne and [track president] Tom [Chuckas] are great to work for. They both bust my chops, but they let me do my job. Tom is always telling me I'm not doing well enough and I'm getting fired. Georganne fires me quite a bit. But they're seriously good at what they do."
When the horses start mixing it up in the stakes races Saturday at Pimlico, racing fans will find Coley Blind is seriously good at what he does, too.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun