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A salute to the Pimlico of the days of fine food and celebrity bettors

The old clubhouse at Pimlico, which burned down in 1966.
The old clubhouse at Pimlico, which burned down in 1966. (MALASHUK/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

If this is really the final Preakness Stakes to be run at Pimlico’s long-serving track, clubhouse and grandstands before a long-awaited renovation, the old place deserves a sporting au revoir.

“The neglect there has been going on for years, makes it a rather tarnished jewel of the Triple Crown,” said April Inloes Smith, a fervent champion of the old track, “but it is as much a part of the real Baltimore as crabs and marble steps.”

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She got it so right when she said, “Another Baltimore trait is how we dis what we have. Until it’s gone. Look at Pennsylvania Avenue. ... The Urban Renewal of the ’60s gone amuck.”

She wonders if the new Pimlico will make a provision for some of the current facility’s architectural features — the Bernard Zuckerman gold horses bas-relief (facing Park Heights Avenue), artist Raoul Middleman’s grandstand murals, and the 1950s mid-century modern clubhouse stairway.

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It’s hard to say whether Pimlico ever had a greatest day or top span of years. Consider this account, in the first Preakness after World War II: “All records for Pimlico racetrack were broken yesterday afternoon when 42,370 turf enthusiasts from all sections of the country, including notables of the armed forces, stage and screen, diplomacy, national and State politics, and society, saw the fleet-footed Assault gallop home to win the historic Preakness.”

The May 12, 1946, article by The Sun’s George C. Dorsch described the clubhouse fare as “indigenous Maryland delicacies.” He listed crab cakes and salad, shad roe, ham, turkey and chicken a la king.

Those who had luncheon at racetrack clubhouses 60 years ago expected, and received, superior food and service. They were not disappointed — amazing food arrived on silver plate platters, and you could file your fingernails on the starch in the tablecloths and napkins. Even the mayonnaise was homemade.

Experience some of the sights and sounds of the running of the 146th Preakness Stakes, held at the Pimlico Race Course.

Pimlico had its storied regulars. A good clubhouse luncheon table, perhaps near FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson, cost a heavy tip to the maître d’hôtel. Hoover required a table where he faced the exits. He did not want to sit with his back facing a door, he told the track press corps.

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The Preakness and Pimlico afforded dazzling people-watching. Metropolitan opera diva and Greenspring Valley resident Rosa Ponselle adored racing and arrived at the track attired in her sables.

One of her betting chums was a fellow diva, Lucrezia Bori, who also sang on the Met stage. There they were, the critically acclaimed Normas and Mimis of the 1920s, laying down $2 wagers.

They were not the only celebrities. At one Preakness, near the Ponselle seats was film star Basil Rathbone, synonymous with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. And let’s not forget the dashing Don Ameche, a racing stables owner and Academy Award winner who caught a Preakness or two.

The track was a draw for Washington power circles. Vice President and future President Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, were Pimlico guests in 1957.

In 1953, Gov. and Mrs. Theodore R. McKeldin hosted many of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cabinet. The militant Cold Warrior, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, posted at Pimlico. So did Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.

Until it burned in 1966, the place to be seen was the Victorian-style porch on the old clubhouse. Its rooftop cupola was reproduced as a reminder of the gaslight era. It and its weather vane became a background set piece for the winner’s circle.

Before crowds filled the infield in 1946, Dorsch reported, “the grandstand boxes took on an al fresco air as many boxholders and their guests ate lunch prepared in their own kitchen and carried to the track in hampers. There was an occasional pop of a cork, a champagne signal.”

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