Backstage stars

The Baltimore Sun

The showpiece of Preakness Day may not occur until after 6 p.m., but the festivities begin just after dawn. For everyone from the half-dressed college kids on the infield to the fancy-hatted patrons in the grandstand, the race remains one of Baltimore's biggest galas. The jockeys, trainers and owners get most of the attention, but many others contribute to putting on the show. Here are a few of their stories.

Sitting down on the job Donna Brothers has grown used to people thinking she has a cool job.

Her life has always revolved around horses, and now she gets to ride them on the biggest stage imaginable as the post-race interviewer on NBC's Triple Crown broadcasts.

But she was stunned when Princess Haya of Jordan approached her at a cocktail party in Germany and said: "I'm so jealous of you. You've got the best job."

"I thought, 'Gee, I wouldn't mind having your job,'" she recalled with a laugh. "But a lot of people do think I have a cool job, and I'm one of them, so it works out."

Brothers comes from a racing family. Her mother was a pioneering female jockey, and her brother and sister also rode professionally. Brothers rode for 11 1/2 years before retiring in 1998 to host a handicapping show from Churchill Downs. Her husband, Frank, trains horses in Kentucky.

When NBC purchased the Triple Crown broadcast rights in 2000, the network needed talent and spotted Brothers doing her show in Kentucky. NBC offered her a chance to work the Breeders' Cup, and she jumped at it.

She has conducted interviews from horseback since. Brothers said her jockey background helps immensely.

She knows, for example, that horses aren't used to being approached from the right, so she keeps a wary eye out for kicks. She knows her horse naturally wants to pull away from her interview subject, so she keeps her right heel dug in to prevent it.

"It would be easy enough for anyone who's ridden their whole life, but you definitely need some experience handling horses," she said.

Rookie horn

When a buddy first suggested to Bill School that he apply to be the bugler for Preakness Day, the Pennsylvania resident demurred.

"I try to keep my life simple," he said. "Stay under the radar and have fun."

But friends and family couldn't believe the lifelong trumpeter would turn down a chance to play before more than 100,000 people and a national television audience. They egged him on until he said he would do it.

So yesterday, the man behind the horn at one of America's biggest races was, well, a rookie.

He wasn't too shy, however, to add his jazzy flourish at the end of the traditional racing intro. That was a nod to his more regular gigs in a funk band and jazz quartet.

School, 50, also works for Menchey Music Service, a Pennsylvania company that sells pianos and rents instruments to local schools.

He has never been much of a racing fan. He followed Secretariat's Triple Crown run and Barbaro's fight for life, but that's about it. He grew up in Pittsburgh as a Steelers fan but joked, "I've found Baltimore people to be very pleasant anyway."

School said the audition process was low-key. He drove to Pimlico Race Course and played a bit for racing officials. They gave him the high boots, bright red coat, white pants and black top hat that go with the gig.

He made his public debut Friday at the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. Between races yesterday, School chatted with a steady stream of intrigued onlookers.

"This is my first year," he said. "So people just want to know who I am and how I got here.

"I'm glad I said I'd do this," he concluded. "If the owners want me, I'll be back."

Brush with fame

As the Preakness dignitaries gathered in the winner's circle yesterday, one man rose above them all. Not the winning jockey, or the governor, or the corporate track owners.

No, it was Lawrence Jones, a 65-year-old retired sign painter for Baltimore City government. For the past 20 years the Woodlawn resident has painted the cast-iron horse-and-jockey weather vane that sits atop the Old Clubhouse near the winner's circle.

The track pays the Colonial Baptist Church minister $500 to rise up in a cherry picker basket to do the handiwork he has performed since 1987. Jones, who supplies his own paints, said he will do the job "until I'm not able to walk anymore."

"It's always a sense of honor every year I go up there," Jones said.

Gone, not forgotten

Though racing fans seemed ready to celebrate yesterday, many stopped to remember the horse whose injury cast a pall over last year's Preakness.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association sold blue bracelets in memory of Barbaro at four booths around Pimlico. The proceeds will benefit research on equine health and safety.

The NTRA sold about $12,000 worth of the $2 bracelets at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby and has so far sold about 80,000 of an initial 100,000 order, spokeswoman Jill Pendygraft said. The sales have raised more than $200,000 for research, she said.

The bracelets are similar to the yellow ones sold by Lance Armstrong's foundation to battle cancer.

"We wanted to give people something in return for their help," Pendygraft said. "Since that did so well with Lance Armstrong, that's what we were thinking."

Betting blues

Ernie Munick finished strumming a blues riff on his guitar and tilted the microphone to his lips.

"You have to love Ramon Dominguez," he murmured, referring to the jockey who had just won the second race at Pimlico yesterday. "What I love about Ramon is that he always leaves the horse a little something in reserve."

Then, Pimlico's lone blues-playing, handicapping troubadour got back to picking his guitar.

Munick, 42, devotes his life to playing music and dispensing betting advice at racetracks around the country. The New Yorker plays Belmont Park every Friday night during the summer, and he flew to Florida's Gulfstream Park for 11 dates last winter. Yesterday marked his Pimlico debut.

The track hired him to perform beside the betting windows in the corporate hospitality area. "I know I'm a character," he said. "No one has to tell me."

Munick's father taught statistics at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y., but his passion was handicapping horses. "While he was giving a test, he'd be reading the Racing Form," Munick said.

Father and son often finished their class obligations in the morning and hit the track together in the afternoon. Munick became a racing writer for the New York Daily News at age 21 and passed most of his 20s following thoroughbreds. He had never picked up an instrument before he turned 29 and decided to learn blues piano and later guitar.

About eight years ago, he figured he'd pair the two loves of his life - ponies and tunes - in an unusual act.

"What else could a horse player be but a blues player?" he quipped by way of explanation.

Munick is such a racing aficionado that he'll give a free hat or shirt to anyone who can stump him on horse trivia. He doesn't necessarily recommend following his advice but was happy to offer his pick in the big race.

"I committed myself to Curlin at the [Kentucky] Derby," he said, "because he's one of the most magnificent chestnuts I've ever seen."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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