Down on its luck

The Baltimore Sun

High in the chandeliered Sports Palace at Pimlico, Neil Glasser's cell phone went off in his pocket. At first he didn't recognize the sound as his own. After all, Glasser and his other retired buddies were eyeballing TVs showing simulcasted races. Could be any horse making that sound. But no, it was Glasser's ring tone making neighing sounds.

How fitting for a man who first went to Pimlico in 1948 and 60 years later, still goes to the track to place $2 bets and handicap races for his friends. Glasser still dresses up, but doesn't go as far as wearing a tie anymore because his wife says it brings him bad luck. Over the years he's upgraded to the Sports Palace, where almost daily he pores over racing programs with his reading glasses.

"The interest is waning. Look around in here. Everybody is old," says Glasser, 76.

Another racing season is under way at Pimlico Race Course, as ground crews fuss with the marigolds and begonias that form a Triple Crown in the infield. The track's big payday, the Preakness Stakes, is May 17 but it's still just one day of the year. The other days at Pimlico show a racetrack a bit down on its luck - but still game for the likes of Glasser and his friends.

They could very well be Pimlico's core customers. There's Vic Epstein sitting next to Glasser, and beside them, 89-year-old Albert Fisher. He doesn't get around too well, so his friends don't bother walking outside to watch the live races. They sit at three tables pushed together, their favorite waitress Shirley bringing them ice tea, as the men watch Pimlico's races on TV. They turn their attention to Churchill Downs, Aqueduct or maybe Charles Town, the West Virginia race and slots track advertising a $300,000 BMW Giveaway promotion. On Treasure Chest Sundays at Pimlico, visitors can win "awesome prizes for electronics merchandise, dining and more."

Tough to compete against a Beemer - and slots. Maryland voters will decide in November whether to allow 15,000 slot machines at five sites but not Pimlico. Meanwhile, an Interstate 83 billboard asks, "Are You Game?" The ad for Pimlico's racing season features a horseshoe reminiscent of the Baltimore Colts, which left town almost a quarter-century ago. Not a good sign.

"We need more big days, more reasons for the casual fans to increase their visits to the track," says Carrie Everly, Pimlico's vice president for marketing. More big days, she says, along the lines of the Microbrew and Wine Fest and Black-Eyed Susan Day. Live music would also enhance the "customer experience." Not to mention, Everly says, a newer facility and if not slots, then money from them to help the track.

Against the cultural and economic odds, some of the old faithful remain at Old Hilltop. Average daily attendance, however, fell to 5,397 last year compared to 10,917 in 1990. (Last year's average was the lowest in nearly 25 years.) Fewer families and young people come out. Maryland horsemen are drawn to bigger purses at slot-rich surrounding states. And with ubiquitous online betting, people don't even have to go to the track.

Pimlico's owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., reported a $114 million loss last year. Most of the company's tracks lose money except for Pimlico, which reported a 35 percent increase in profit last year, but that was due almost entirely to the Preakness Stakes. More than 121,200 people showed up last year to see the middle leg of racing's Triple Crown. The trick is to get them back for the other 30 days of Pimlico's live racing season, which ends June 7.

"Come on, it's not terrible," says a chuckling Glasser. "You learn to like it."

Glory days

The track is an acquired taste. But even the casual fan can appreciate Pimlico's history. Here, Man O' War romped to victory in 1920; the first tote board was introduced in 1933; Seabiscuit upset War Admiral in 1938 (the movie poster can be seen around Pimlico); Secretariat smashed the field in 1973; and Barbaro suffered a life-ending injury at the 2006 Preakness. To list a few track footnotes.

Like Baltimore itself, Pimlico has always had its characters and quirks. In what other gift shop can you buy a Barbaro cap - or a flask? Where else but Pimlico can you see posters of lederhosen-wearing, buxom women hawking something called Frank's Energy Drink ("Keeps you yodeling all night long!") while the track's "Soup of the Day" is also promoted?

"What's the soup of the day?" Vic Epstein asks Albert Fisher.

"Good," Fisher says.

"No, what's the soup of the day?"

"How do I know? It's good soup."

"Looks like turkey noodle," Epstein says.

Fisher bets his mother's favorite numbers, 5 and 6. Glasser likes the 2 and 5 horses when he boxes his exactas. Before he became a real horseman (he owns seven horses), Glasser spent time as an auxiliary firefighter with Engine No. 52 in Baltimore back in the 1970s. So, the man likes to bet the 2 and 5. "We're not out here because we're smart," he says. Epstein disagrees. "Neil is one of the best handicappers I know." Don't know about that, Glasser says, "some days here I'm suffering from the stupids."

Come on 1! You Bum! someone hollers. That's tame compared to Charlie the undertaker who runs around really screaming - or the superstitious guy who yells for the horse he doesn't have, says Glasser, whose Owings Mills garage is painted to resemble a three-horse stable. He doesn't yell much, well, never. He smiles when he wins, and sometimes smiles when he loses. He's a content track man.

"All right, Neil," says Epstein, having lost a couple of bucks in the fourth race at Pimlico. "We need the double at Aqueduct."

The men return to their racing programs and turkey noodle soup. Down a level, there's the clubhouse with its bus station motif. Rows of, again, mostly older men watch the banks of 12 TV sets simulcasting races throughout the country. "Cash is King" reads one visor. The tattoos can be murals onto themselves. Some of the men use binoculars inside. They snap their fingers or make smooching sounds, as they urge their horses on. Fight Back 6! Come on Lady! Get up! I didn't get no money out of that race.

If you want to find the Fountain of Youth at Pimlico, it might have to be the second horse in the fourth. But at the paddock, a youth was spotted. Kevin Leary Jr., a 10-year-old from Baltimore, spent a Saturday with his father, as both watched the horses enter the jumpy paddock. Please folks, don't use flash cameras. This was Kevin's first day at the track. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, his father came about every weekend with his father and grandfather.

"It's a good place for kids," says Leary, 37. "He picks the horses, and I lose."

His son said he doesn't like the fiesty horses. Another factor is the color of the silks. For the seventh race, Kevin picked a horse named Masala. "I like the purple." His father went to the tellers' window and bet $2 across the board for Masala to win, place or show. A fading Masala would finish out of the money on the turf race, but his purple silks looked sharp.

Eau de track

Outside in the grandstand, fresh air mingles with the scent of cigars, hot dogs and the occasional smackdown whiff of horse. There, a pack of Marlboros tucked into a rare stroller. Here, men can smoke, drink a Bud Light and lose cash money in peace. But what a rush to see the horses break from the gate on the big screen in the infield, then turning your head to the left to see them, in the flesh, come down the backstretch to the finish line lengths from where you're standing. You can debate how smart horses really are, but who can say they're not a sight?

"Oh, my Lord, they are beautiful," says Gabriella Neal, a 51-year-old from East Baltimore. This is her Big Day at the track. Far away from a sparse weekday crowd, Neal positioned herself near the starting gate. Pentax and Canon cameras dangled from her neck; Neal planned to commemorate her first trip to Pimlico by taking a scrapbook of pictures.

After many years, Neal doesn't have a child, grandchild or day job to take care of. So, today, Pimlico. Tomorrow, the Walters, she says. "I'm catching up with everything I didn't get a chance to do when I was young. I'm having a ball!"

Geographically, she couldn't be farther away from Glasser and his buddies in the Sports Palace. But they all are together, in a way. Not only did Neal see her first horse race, she bet for the time. First three races, in fact. "Shhhhh," she says. Her mother is still alive and never did approve of gambling. All right, for the amended record, Neal did not bet on the horses at Pimlico.

She did not win two races, either.

No, ma'am.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

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