With Preakness approaching, it's time to hail Hale

There's one thing that will be different about the 119th Preakness, which will be run at Pimlico a week from Saturday. That's Lenny Hale.

Hale came here from New York in January to be vice president for racing at Pimlico and Laurel. That means he oversees the whole racing department.


The Preakness is a lot of things -- balloon races, infield celebrations, parties, etc. But above all it's a 1 3/16-mile race for the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds in the land.

That's where Hale comes in, and that's why people at Pimlico are even more upbeat than usual as the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown approaches.


Lenny Hale is one of the best-liked racing executives in the country. People tell you he's "the salt of the earth," "a great guy," "a man who lives and breathes horses."

More importantly, he's acknowledged as one of the best racing executives in the country.

Had it not been for political infighting in the New York Racing Association, for which Hale was racing secretary and vice president, he never would have been available to Pimlico-Laurel boss Joe De Francis.

"Getting Lenny Hale here is like getting Joe Gibbs to come in and coach your football team," said Ferris Allen, vice president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

This whole thing is a homecoming for Hale, 48, who grew up here, graduated from Overlea High, attended Essex Community College and Towson State, and then began what became an illustrious career in racing.

"There've been a few bumpy nights since I got back," Hale said yesterday, "but overall it's been great.

"I've learned that the people in Maryland still know how to do a party. I went to the sales at Timonium and the same people were there who were there when I left 20 years ago. They're just older and fatter, like me."

Running a race like the Preakness is nothing new to Hale. He put together racing cards at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. He has put on the Belmont Stakes and the Travers.


Hale was on the committee to assign weights for the Experimental Handicap. He has chaired the Breeders' Cup selection panel. He is a trustee of the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga.

Despite having worked with the best of the best for two decades, Hale is impressed by Pimlico's preparations for the Preakness.

"They're better organized here for the big day than any place I've been," said Hale.

Hale expects a field of "about 10" for the Preakness, which should lead to a better race than the cavalry charge of 19 in the Kentucky Derby last Saturday.

"Going to the Derby," said Hale, "nobody thought that would be a good race because it was so wide open.

"I think we've got a good Preakness. We've got the Derby winner, Sea Hero. He paid $27.40 but he proved he's a good horse when he won the Champagne Stakes last October.


"We've got the place horse in the Derby, Prairie Bayou. He's owned by Loblolly Stable, the same people who owned last year's Preakness winner, Pine Bluff. He was the favorite in Louisville. So we have the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 finishers from the Derby.

"Remember, the Kentucky Derby isn't necessarily won by the best 3-year-old in the country. It's won by the best horse on the first Saturday in May."

Hale wasn't brought to Maryland just to work on the Preakness. His assignment is much bigger than that. He's here to help pull Maryland racing out of the doldrums.

"I'm proud to be a Marylander," Hale said, "but I'm not too happy about the recent reputation Maryland racing has acquired.

"The word was out that things had gotten a little shabby in Maryland. A lot of stables didn't want to come here. We're trying to reverse that. We're fixing up the barn area here. We're trying to bring back some trainers who raced here before."

Hale's aspirations go even higher than that. He wants to bring the Breeders' Cup here.


"We'd like to bring the Breeders' Cup to Maryland in a couple years," he said. "It's set for California, then Kentucky, and for New York the year after that. But things are so mixed up in New York that you don't know what's going to happen. I'd like to bring the Breeders' Cup here that year. People in America need to see 4 1/2 hours of Maryland racing."

Hale remembers the "incredible rush" he felt after the success of the first Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct in 1985. He would like to feel the same thing in his native state.