One of life's best shows is at the track


OVER THE YEARS I've devoted many a fine spring afternoon to watching the horses go around the Maryland landscape. Only one of these excursions has been for a Preakness -- 1970, when I was 20 and a Pimlico usher for a day.

I never pretended to be a turf expert but nevertheless took a certain amount of wagering money along. Never once did I exit a racetrack shortchanged for the total experience -- a sort of theater where the players are both humans and horses.

And there are vivid costumes too -- another part of the racing game where there are winners and losers.

There's something about a racetrack that makes the clientele feel comfortable enough to dress in an exaggerated, sportif way. The patterns on a man's sport coat should be vigorous. A woman's hat can be the size of a restaurant serving platter.

When I want a fresh eye on the racetrack set, I look at the watercolor sketches of the late Baltimore artist Aaron Sopher. Throughout his career, Sopher painted women draped in floppy furs and men in wide lapels. He did a whole series of spring Pimlico meets in the 1940s. He caught the happy frenzy of the crowd.

That assembly often includes an array of local celebrities and characters. Over the years I've spotted a cast that includes eccentric department-store heiresses, Orioles executives, and Southern Maryland aristocratic women accompanied by much younger and not-so-well-born boyfriends.

For many years, a spring afternoon at Old Hilltop wasn't complete unless I spotted Baltimore's ex-Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro and his wife, Nancy, two of racing's most ardent fans.

On a handful of occasions -- I think my parents wanted me, my brother and sisters to observe table manners (and good waiters) action -- we had a gala lunch in the clubhouse at Pimlico.

This offered an even better fashion show, superb food and the possibility of a five-star celebrity sighting. It was there I saw FBI man J. Edgar Hoover and my all-time best catch, the actress Audrey Meadows. She had on a stunning mink stole and a pair of drop-dead pointy sunglasses. She epitomized style and theatricalism to my 5-year-old eyes.

The clubhouse's tables were garbed in perfect linen. The menus were printed fresh daily on heavy cardboard stock. The food was served in heavy silverplate vessels -- gravy boats for the mayonnaise, little silver dishes for the capers. A salad was delivered with the flourish of the dining room in a New York hotel. Lamb stew, a house specialty, arrived at the table with a grand style that eludes today's stuffy and pretentious dining palaces.

In this golden era of racing, we often took the train to the track -- not to Pimlico, of course, but to Laurel or Delaware. Getting to those tracks on the old Baltimore and Ohio was half the fun. Those aged, gray-and-blue coaches -- big lumbering steel conveyances -- reminded me of a rolling living room, never stylish, but always clean.

When the train finally made Baltimore from Delaware Park, its arrival was deliberate as we passed through the Howard Street Tunnel, emerged in the industrial area near today's Oriole Park and backed into Camden Station. This act seemed to take forever.

My winnings were always in the $2.60 category -- big money in 1962. My pockets were full of dimes, and I was anxious to tell the world about my day as a big-league sportsman -- and to spend that day's fortune.

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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