I'm glad the ponies will continue to run at Pimlico. I’m a faithful race goer, a low-stakes gambler, a Baltimore mom whose annual tradition is to take my kids to the track on Mother’s Day. The place looks great then, all gussied up with black-eyed Susans and fanfare in preparation for Preakness.
I started going when I was pregnant with my son, 19 years ago, and the railbirds who line the track rails on the regular would sidle up to me and my big belly on the empty tarmac, thinking I had the touch.
I don’t have the touch. I’m no handicapper. I try though. I scan the forms, noting that Charlie’s Angel, say, swung wide in his last race and faded on the final turn, or that Mist Opportunity placed in three of her past six starts. I squint as the horses parade past, seeing that No. 5 is already in a lather, while No. 2 looks less alert than the steady old track pony leading him out. Really, I just pick horses by name and looks (I love the dapple grays), but I don’t go to the track for the money.
I go because when those gorgeous beasts pound past on the homestretch, necks straining, bodies soaring, my heart gallops with them. I scream, I jump, I go hoarse. I’m a horse girl, a rider, a Maryland native who has ridden my share of OTTBs — off-the-track Thoroughbreds, retired racehorses who go on to second and third acts. I grew up cantering bareback among tobacco fields in Southern Maryland, bombing around for the sheer joy of it. Once, at a fair, I got to race my horse, a strawberry roan named Shane, on a real race track. Shane wasn’t built for speed, but that track was. We both felt it. He arched his neck and plumed his tail, and when I whispered “go!” we flew to the lead, glorying in a gallop with no divots, no stones, no foxholes, no unseen dangers, until another horse overtook us and won.
Look, I know racing isn’t good for racehorses, just like I know football isn’t good for football players. I don’t defend either sport. But I love the track. And gambling is in my blood. I come by it honestly. Or dishonestly, based on my Baltimore bloodlines.
My Italian great-grandfather, for one, was a natty beau who loved to bet horses and accost women. Family lore has it that he’d disappear for days or weeks at a time to do both, often flush with proceeds from his hotel barbershops, one at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place in Atlantic City, N.J., and another in Baltimore’s beautiful Belvedere Hotel in the ‘20s. His brothers, who ran a questionable 24-hour barbershop on Baltimore’s Block (do that many sailors really need a shave at 3 a.m.?) also loved to wager in their off hours. And my grandfather’s silent business associate in the 1950s, I recently learned, was a bookie named Louie Comai, a thrice-convicted local that the FBI once termed “Baltimore’s biggest hoodlum.”
My dad, a dapper lawyer turned judge, made gambling a family affair. He’d host nickel-ante poker games for his fellow lawyers in our suburban basement (despite the fact that Maryland’s antique gambling laws made home wagering a criminal misdemeanor until Oct.1 of this year), and he taught my siblings and I the game. All of us have poker chips and cards somewhere in our houses. My dad’s trash talk (“bunch of ribbon clerks and pantywaists in here”) and judicial poker face were unrivaled. He liked the horses too, and he and I placed our air bets with each other before the running of each Derby and Preakness. Like me, he picked horses based on name. Like me, he was more avid than lucky.
My own children and I have carried on the family habit. They accompany me to Pimlico on Mother’s Day. They pick favorites to win and long shots to show. They know how to box an exacta. My daughter, an athlete, cheers on the rail. My son, now of legal gambling age, knows how to place a bet: “Pimlico, next race, $4 on Biscotti to place.”
These aren’t life skills, no, but they are a family and city tradition. And I am among those who are glad the tradition may well continue.
Joyce Lombardi lives and works in Baltimore City. She can be reached at email@example.com.