It was 10 o'clock the night before Black-Eyed Susan Day when Phoebe Hayes' phone rang. A trainer was on the other end. He was driving his horse from Ohio to Pimlico Race Course overnight and needed a hotel room by 6 a.m. Friday.
With accommodations booked well in advance for Preakness weekend, there was practically nothing available. But by the time he pulled up in Baltimore, Hayes had found him a room.
"I remember saying to myself afterward: A. Why am I here at 10 o'clock at night (which I always am at 10 o'clock at night)? and B. Why in the heck does he think someone would be here to do this?" Hayes said. "But that's what we do. That's how we roll."
As the director of horsemen's relations for the Maryland Jockey Club, Hayes, 55, is a crucial figure behind the scenes of Preakness weekend. Whether her office is coordinating rides for owners, overseeing admittance to the winner's circle after the Preakness or arranging a White House tour, Hayes juggles it all, ensuring smooth visits for the VIPs.
The hospitality at Pimlico outshines the dilapidated, 146-year-old facility where the race is held, according to visiting trainers and owners. Some of them say attending the Preakness is more enjoyable than the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes because the staff at Pimlico tamps down the chaos of the events.
"Phoebe works so hard, but she's got it down. It's like Grand Central Station there when you walk in there. She starts working on it early," said Bob Baffert, who trained last year's Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. "When you've been there for all these years, she knows exactly — 'Bob's going to want this, this, this and that.'"
While the Kentucky Derby is the most stressful race in the Triple Crown, Baffert said, he's able to relax after arriving in Baltimore for the Preakness. He has been coming to Pimlico since 1996, and the Preakness is his favorite leg of the race series, he said, in part because the staff at Pimlico will "bend over backward to take care of you."
Though Hayes' team is putting up VIPs at the Four Seasons Baltimore, they are coordinating those visits from a modest office in the bowels of Pimlico's grandstands. With beige semigloss walls and a tiny window for natural light, you'd miss it if you didn't know it was there. But it becomes a beehive of logistics coordinators leading up to Preakness.
On a recent afternoon, less than two weeks before the race weekend, Hayes was in high demand. She picked up the phone and jotted down a caller's name, asking to call him back.
"And what's your horse's name?" she said, a lilt in her voice.
Hayes can rattle off horses' names "like boom, boom," Douglas Simpkins, a transportation coordinator, said with a snap of his fingers. She keeps organized with spreadsheets, in- and out-boxes and sign-out sheets, but Hayes' deep knowledge of the horse industry allows her to anticipate visitors' needs.
Once, a trainer forgot to untie his horse after the barn was cleaned, so he called Hayes directly and asked her to let his horse loose.
"I laugh about that because I say, I am the complete horsemen's relations," Hayes said. "You can't ask some office girl to go and do that."
The horsemen's relations department functions year-round, but its responsibilities multiply during the Triple Crown. While Hayes works with two people most of the year, she oversees about 60 during Preakness week. She hand-picks them to ensure their competence and capability.
She handles the most important details herself, booking the hotel rooms for big-name owners and trainers with help from only one assistant to protect their financial information.
Each owner of a horse in the Preakness gets a car and driver during their visit, and each trainer gets a car. The drivers know where their passengers need to be down to the minute — whether it's at a TV studio or in a tent in Pimlico's corporate village.
"We have it choreographed the entire day so they don't have to worry. All they have to do is have a good experience and enjoy their time here," Hayes said. "We don't want them to be nervous. I mean, they're going to be nervous anyway — they're running in a million-and-a-half dollar race."
Baffert said that much was true.
"You're a little stressed because of the race," he said. "They make sure that you don't have to worry about a thing. When you get off the plane you don't have to worry about anything."
Steve Coburn, who owned California Chrome when he won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2014, said the Preakness was the most enjoyable experience of the three Triple Crown races, and his visit to Pimlico was "like clockwork." His visit to Churchill Downs was handled less efficiently, and he said his team's needs weren't taken care of as quickly as they were at Pimlico.
"They had things planned for everybody — it was basically a stress-free time during a stressful time," he said of the Triple Crown's second leg. "That was the stress-free that we needed between Churchill and Belmont."
Ensuring smooth, memorable visits extends beyond the race weekend. In 1998, for example, the hospitality team arranged a private tour of the White House for Baffert and his entourage.
Hayes grew up around horses because both her parents rode. She graduated from high school at age 16 and was accepted to Cornell University's pre-veterinary program, but they wanted her to wait a year before enrolling. She spent that year riding and never looked back.
"My parents couldn't afford to pay for me to go to college anyway and ride horses," she said. "I had to make a choice."
She chose horses, and spent her late teens working at shows and selling horses. At 22, she decided she wanted to further her equestrian career.
She talked her way into a job with trainer MacKenzie "Mack" Miller ("I said, 'You need me to work for you,'" she recalled). Lenny Hale of the New York Racing Association helped her get a job in marketing, and she joined the Maryland Jockey Club in 1995 as the director of group sales.
"I think it's very helpful to have an understanding of the horsemen," she said. "If you weren't somebody in the industry I think it would be very hard to understand why everything has to be done last-minute."
Entries for horses running on Black-Eyed Susan Day, the Friday before the Preakness, are taken on the Sunday before. The horses racing Saturday are entered Wednesday. In the brief time between, Hayes' staff calls every single owner and trainer to learn their needs and how many guests they will have.
Back in her office, Hayes fielded a call from Reddam Racing regarding its stay in Baltimore. Businessman J. Paul Reddam owns 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, the presumptive Preakness favorite who arrived in Baltimore on May 9.
Minutes later, a scroll of emails distracted her.
"Oh! I just got an email from Mrs. Reddam, and it says — what does it say? 'We love Pimlico and we're all looking forward to going back,'" she said. "So isn't that nice."
Most visitors are appreciative, she said.
"I've had some really interesting experiences where somebody will come in and" — she bangs her fists on her desk. "I try to be as gracious as I can — and roll my eyes when the door is closed — and they come back at the end of it and say, 'Thank you, it was a great experience.'"
That's why trainers like Mark Casse want to come back. Casse, who will be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame on Wednesday, has been to Pimlico for two Preaknesses. The Casse Racing team is bringing 12 horses to compete this weekend.
"The service has just been unbelievable, and in fact it's one of the reasons we look forward to coming back to Pimlico," Casse said. "They pick you up at the airport, they shuttle you around, and my wife and I really enjoy Baltimore."
Casse expects he'll soon receive messages from one of his contacts at the race course — he calls him "Pimlico Phil" — offering to show him around Baltimore, as he has in previous years.
Although Hayes is on call 24/7 and running on little sleep, she is outwardly calm as the Preakness approaches. She knows she'll spend the end of the week putting out fires — invariably, someone will need an extra ticket or special accommodation at the last minute.
The work doesn't end when the races are over. When the stables are empty, she has to order engraving for trophies.
"When you work at a racetrack, it's not a 9-to-5," she said. "When you work with horses it's 24/7, 365."
Latest Baltimore Insider