Ben Cohen dies, co-owned Pimlico


From the time he was 17, entrepreneur Ben Cohen had only himself as a boss -- becoming with his partner and brother Herman a liquidator and builder, and a pioneer in Baltimore television broadcasting.

But most of all, he was a noted sportsman -- co-owner for 34 years of Pimlico Race Course, and owner with his wife, Zelda, of many thoroughbreds, including 1965 Belmont Stakes winner Hail All.

On Monday at Sinai Hospital, less than a mile from the Pimlico backstretch, Mr. Cohen died of complications of old age. He was 94.

"He had a love affair with racing that was unequaled," former Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang remembered yesterday. "To him, Pimlico was not a business, it was his back yard -- he liked the animals, the atmosphere and playing the horses."

The Cohen brothers bought Pimlico in 1952 along with an out-of-state partner, with whom they had earlier operated tracks in Ohio. The Cohens also had owned the Charles Town track in West Virginia.

The Cohens also bought the Bowie track in 1983, in a move intended to consolidate racing at fewer tracks. Bowie was turned into a training center, and its racing dates were transferred to Pimlico and Laurel.

Under their management, Pimlico was modernized and the seating capacity expanded. And, at the behest of Mr. Lang, they opened the infield to bolster attendance for its biggest event -- the Preakness Stakes.

Mr. Cohen was born in Baltimore's Fells Point at the turn of the century, and attended school only through the sixth grade. He went to work for his family at 14, in a general store in Kinston, N.C. He returned to Baltimore at 17, and went into business with his older brother -- beginning a lifelong partnership. They liquidated bankrupt businesses; operated a chain of shoe stores in Baltimore, Washington and Richmond, and a department store in Durham, N.C.; and got into homebuilding in Norfolk, Va., just before the outbreak of World War II.

Their timing was impeccable -- liquidation specialists during the Depression, building homes near a naval base as war loomed, and getting into the television business as partners in the founding of WAAM (Channel 13) in 1948. The station, now WJZ, was sold to Westinghouse in 1957.

Ultimately, homebuilding and property management became the Cohen brothers' biggest business, according to Ben Cohen's grandson, John Davison. They built homes in the Washington area in the mid-1940s, and U.S. Housing and Urban Development projects in the 1960s, apartment complexes in the 70s.

More recently, in a partnership with son-in-law Richard Davison, Mr. Cohen had opened "mini-warehouse" storage facilities.

Mr. Cohen's love for the racetrack dated to the early 1920s. In his courtship days with the former Zelda Greenberg, the couple went to the track together.

Pimlico was in trouble when the Cohen brothers bought the track in 1953 -- the old management ordered by the state racing commission chairman to build a new grandstand or risk losing its license.

The Cohen partnership put up $2.2 million to buy Pimlico from the Maryland Jockey Club, and over the years put up a new

clubhouse as well as a new grandstand.

Mr. Lang recalled a time when Pimlico's owners were trying to get racing legislation passed, and Ben Cohen told state lawmakers:

"Gentlemen, I'm a four-time loser: I breed horses, own horses, own a racetrack and bet horses. I have no chance to make it in this game. Give me some help and get your hands out of my pocket. And, by the way, if I didn't have to leave the track to come here to talk you, I would have had the Triple in the last race."

"He never had an office at Pimlico," Mr. Lang said. "His office was where he could find an empty chair. He could be in a business meeting at the track. But, when he heard the bugle for the first race, he would say, 'They're playing my song,' and the meeting was adjourned."

It was said the Cohens had a "ma-and-pa" type of operation, with the track staffed by many longtime employees. "It was like one big family at Pimlico," Mr. Lang said in late 1986, at the time Pimlico was sold for $32 million to a group headed by the late Frank J. De Francis.

Ben Cohen, along with his wife, Zelda, remained prominent in racing circles, breeding as well as running numerous thoroughbreds -- notable among them Hail to All, a colt that won the Jersey Derby and Belmont Stakes in the same week of 1965.

Mr. and Mrs. Cohens' operation for several years was the leading Maryland breeder. The couple dispersed their breeding stock in the late 1980s, but kept active in racing.

Survivors, in addition to Mr. Cohen's wife of 66 years, include two daughters, Rosalee Davison of Baltimore and Charlotte Weinberg of Philadelphia; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Herman Cohen died in 1992.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Bros., 6010 Reisterstown Road, Baltimore.

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