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About this time of the year a set of news stories appear to reveal how the spectator side of thoroughbred racing is about to perish. I read the accounts about Pimlico's fallen glory days and that the stands are empty, except for Preakness day.

When it comes to racing, I am not unprejudiced. I grew up learning about the track and was smitten by the beauty of the horses and the social tone and demeanor of the colorful spectators. I'm not a good handicapper, but I believe in having a good time, Baltimore-style, just the way that Pimlico delivers.

I can credit my father, Joe Kelly, who covered the sport for many years, beginning at this paper in the mid-1940s. At an early age I learned that when my mother said, "Liberty 42-hundred," she was phoning my father and generally saying she'd be right out for the afternoon's racing card. She played all hunches, her children's ages and any name that caught her fancy.

A couple of Saturdays ago I had signed up for a day at the races with a group from my church. My father and I drove out to Old Hilltop on one of those gorgeous April Saturday afternoons that are to Maryland racing what a hot July night is to baseball.

Our group reserved a block of tables in the clubhouse. The cost was $27 and it included a full hot lunch and a program - by the way, quite a bargain compared with some of my hot dog-based meals at Camden Yards.

The place was not crowded, but what I observed had much of the gentility of another time and place, an agreeable condition that plays excessively well with me.

I was soon in the handicapping mode. My friend, Dr. Paul McHugh, the retired Johns Hopkins psychiatry department chairman, confidentially advised a bet on a horse named Wacko. The way I played it, I made $13.

I can't think of a better way to gain some mental therapy and honest relaxation. Part of the joy of the place is watching the other spectators, who know that in the long run they are going to lose money, but decide to have a good time as they do it.

And just when you think no one dresses for the races you spot people attired fabulously for the day, the $500 shoes (and those on men) and the women in mink coats and jaunty hats. I am delighted to report the outrageous racetrack plaid sport coat still exists and can be found here.

OK. Not everyone dresses in the stylish-eccentric style. By there are enough sightings to make my afternoon.

I couldn't stay until the last race, the way my father did. So, about 4:30, I left the group and walked to Park Heights and Belvedere, got in a cab and was on my way.

Maybe this old-fashioned pastime is on its way out. I still recommend the clubhouse with a gang of a friends. And do it while you can. Baltimore has a way of letting fabulous traditions die.

I think what we've lost: A Saturday afternoon lunch at Marconi's or arriving at Camden Station (maybe from Delaware Park) on a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad racing special. Change is permanent, but the best of the 1950s still resides at Old Hilltop.



Find Jacques Kelly's recent columns at baltimoresun.com/kelly

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