CHERRY HILL, N.J.—— As the draw for Preakness post positions came to an end Wednesday evening, Donna Peiffer's work was just beginning.
Into the night she worked, turning a dozen colorful cloths into identification badges that will help millions of racing fans follow a favorite horse from starting gate to finish line.
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As Peiffer worked her way methodically down the list of horses, the hours became a blur of thread and fabric.
"I get stressed. I want to be done on time," she acknowledged early Thursday, while keeping an eye on a roomful of $170,000 machines. "You can't have disturbances. You have to focus."
Since 2004, the job of embroidering the Preakness saddle cloths has belonged to CDK Embroidery, a small shop just across the street from the location of the 3/8th pole at the now defunct Garden State Park.
"It's a team effort. I'm just the conductor," said owner James Walford, a native of Canada who retains the slender build and bouncy step of an athlete who rode in more than 1,000 races during a 24-year career.
After an artist designs the logo and the lettering, a craftsman — called a digitizer — transforms the image into a computer program that directs the embroidery machines. Peiffer stretches a cloth over a frame and locks it in place. She punches in the computer coordinates and launches the machine on a test run to ensure that the lettering will be properly aligned. She stops and manually overrides the program when she senses a glitch.
"It's not as easy as it looks," Peiffer said as she lined up the name of the Kentucky Derby winner, I'll Have Another, on a teal-colored background. "You can't just flip the switch and count on the machine to do the rest."
Each Preakness logo takes three hours to stitch. The name and number add about another hour. Depending on the complexity of the design, a saddle cloth costs anywhere from $90 to $200 to produce.
Inches away, a larger machine stitched a Preakness sponsor's name on the legs and backsides of a half-dozen pair of white jockey pants. The dangling pant legs danced a small jig in perfect rhythm to the up-and-down movement of the sewing needles.
Walford also owns Whips International, a jockey supply business that ships to more than 20 countries and has even captured a share of the growing camel-racing market in the Middle East. His ties to the racing industry — he has also done embroidery for the Breeder's Cup Stakes — and the quality of his work got him the job with the Maryland Jockey Club.
While the Preakness and the other stakes races at Pimlico are only a small slice of his business, they are the part closest to his heart.
"I'm proud of this," he said, his gray eyes shining. "Absolutely."
On Friday morning, either a courier or a member of Walford's family will drive the 12 saddle cloths to Baltimore and the office of Georganna Hale, the director of racing.
"We don't hand them over to anyone else," Walford said. "Once she has them, our job is done."
And Peiffer can exhale.
"It's my own race to the Preakness," she said as she picked off bits of lint and thread before folding the cloths for the final time. "Then I get to kick back and watch the race."