Protecting a winner

California Chrome gazed out of Stall 40 in Shed Row at Pimlico on Saturday afternoon, his ears twitching in the breeze.

Damon Lann stood nearby, keeping an eye on the horse.

This is the eighth year that Lann has been given the job of protecting the Kentucky Derby winner in the days leading up to the Preakness.

Lann, 42, works as a correctional officer at the Baltimore City Detention Center. But for two weeks a year, he stands guard at a very different location.

"This is my vacation," said Lann, who takes two weeks off to work at Pimlico. "It's one of those jobs you have to have a passion to do."

He arrives at the track just after sunrise, in time for the morning workout, and stands in the green wooden barn for 12 hours a day, watching over the horse and making sure that visitors keep a safe distance.

Lann gets to know the people who make up the horse's entourage — the owners, trainers, practice jockey, jockey and groom. If someone is not on the approved list, he will not allow that person near the horse. There are rarely conflicts or disturbances, he said.

"Once you set your standards, it's a cakewalk," he said.

He gets a sense of each horse's personality during the days that they spend in Stall 40, the traditional lodging for the Derby winner at Pimlico.

"I call this guy 'Showtime,' " he said of California Chrome. "Once he hears the cameras clicking, he starts looking around."

In contrast, Orb, last year's Derby winner, was a "very calm, subtle horse," he said.

I'll Have Another, the 2012 winner, was playful, always looking to goof around with his caretakers.

Lann has been working with horses since he was a kid growing up near the old Lexington Terrace public housing development.

A cousin of his was a groom at Pimlico and helped him get a job as a "hot walker." From the time Lann was 12 until he joined the Marines at 18, he would hold the horses while the grooms washed them, then walk them through the stables as they dried.

He started working in security for the infield a dozen years ago, and was moved to watching over the Derby winner four years after that.

Years of working with horses have made him sensitive to their dispositions.

A few years back, he noticed that a horse was lying down in its stable, he said. He called the horse's trainer, who discovered that the horse had a pebble trapped under its shoe, causing it pain.

"It's like your own kids," he said. "One minute they're running around and the next they're quiet, and you know something's not right."

Lann, who lives in Eastpoint, has three sons, ages 17,14 and 12. His mother brought them over to Pimlico for a few hours Saturday, but they aren't much interested in racing, he said.

Lann's presence is reassuring to California Chrome's team.

"He's the man," said assistant trainer Alan Sherman. "He takes care of his business. He takes care of everyone."

Alexis Garske, Sherman Racing's director of media relations, said Lann's attitude is emblematic of the warmth and professionalism the team experienced at Pimlico.

"He's very soothing," she said. "We talk to him all day."

In the early afternoon, as thousands cavorted in the infield or jostled in the stands, the stables were remarkably calm. Shaded by green awnings, the horses ate hay, interrupted only by the occasional visit from an owner or trainer.

The quiet will soon subside for Lann, who returns to work at the jail later this week.

But for a few more hours Saturday, he took pride in presiding over the quiet order of the stable.

"It gives me great pleasure to be hospitable," he said.

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