Finding success in silks at Preakness

Tracy Campola in her attic studio where she makes silks for jockeys.
Tracy Campola in her attic studio where she makes silks for jockeys. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

It's 10 in the morning and Tracy Campola has already been up for hours, putting the finishing touches on one of 14 racing silks that are due by the end of the week. The Arbutus resident is surprisingly calm, considering that she's up to her neck in orders and less than three days away from the state's largest horse race — the Preakness.

Campola's calm demeanor and attention to detail brought her success as a jockey agent, but the long hours, constant travel to racetracks in other states, and the desire to spend time with her elderly father sent her in search of a different career.

So two years ago Campola tapped into her artistic side and began designing racing silks worn by the jockeys she at one time represented.

"I wanted to retire. It's very demanding on your time," she said of being an agent. "I decided that this would be a good job for me since I had a background in sewing. My jockey, Sheldon Russell, went to New York and left me without a job. It was time to do something else."

Campola, 53, made all the replacement silks for the Preakness last year. A number of jockeys will wear her lightweight Lycra silks this weekend. She found out Wednesday evening that Javier Santiago, the jockey riding Pretension in the Preakness, would be wearing one of her designs Saturday.

"It's always fun to see that," she said, revealing that Santiago will be wearing red silks adorned with pink hoops. "It's just a little bit more exciting than a normal day —especially when their picture is taken in the winner's circle."

Campola estimates that she makes about 150 racing silks a year. Her busiest time of year centers on the Triple Crown.

"I'm either doing nothing or I have a list like that," she said, pointing to a sheet of paper covered with names and numbers that hung from a wall in her home's attic work space.

Campola's quick rise is remarkable, considering that the extent of her sewing training was a home economics class she took in high school growing up in Boston.

"I'm pretty much self-taught," she said, adding that she has learned from trial and error. "I spent the first couple months refining my work."

At close to $200 each, Campola wants to make sure that her customers get the highest quality silks available.

"I try and stay competitive," she said. "But I like to keep the costs down. I don't up-charge for last-minute orders. I'm a bad businesswoman. I don't want to turn anyone away."

Campola has excelled through her ability to collaborate with horse owners in the development of silks — designs and colors of silks usually reflect their tastes — and her willingness to experiment with colors and designs. Her silks have featured camouflage, zebra print, nautical themes and tweaked logos of sporting teams. This week she completed a set of silks adorned in pink ribbons and Swarovski crystals to be raffled off during Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico Race Track.

She's also become a favorite among jockeys and trainers because her one-size-fits-all silks are made larger and can accommodate the mandatory safety vests.

"The riders love her work," said Damon Dilodovico, a horse trainer based in Bowie. "They say that the material she uses is light enough that it breathes. They are not bound up in that."

Dilodovico tasked Campola with replicating a set of silks that he previously ordered from another company in California.

"The jockeys were complaining about how hot they were," he said. "The California set was five times heavier. To be able to just ride and not have to worry about the heat definitely helps the riders."

Dilodovico also praised Campola's attention to detail.

"Tracy is very precise when making these things," he said. "She's always been like that. … Anything she puts her name on she wants it to be the best."

While Campola welcomes the business, she also doesn't want to get "too big." She prefers to work out of her home and keep the business more manageable, she said.

"I don't want to get big," she said with a slight hint of her Boston accent. "It takes away from my poker time with my Dad. I'm going to keep it small."


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