'Mr. Preakness' honored at Pimlico's Opening Day

The sun was shining Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, and somewhere, Chick Lang was smiling.

At least, that's the way his family felt. On the first day of the spring racing schedule at Pimlico, the Maryland horse racing community held a small ceremony to say goodbye to Charles "Chick" Lang, a legendary figure in the racing industry and longtime Pimlico general manager.

Lang, known as Mr. Preakness, died March 18 of natural causes at age 83, and per his wishes, there was no funeral.

Instead, Lang was cremated and his ashes were carried on horseback around the track's mile oval and then spread in the Preakness winner's circle. The ritual was meant to be more celebratory than sad, and it accomplished that.

"Dad would have loved today," said Lang's daughter, Debi Tessier. "Opening day at Pimlico was his second favorite day of the year. He did not want a funeral. This was his church. He believed that you lived your religion by being good to other people, and I think that was evidenced today by the people who came and what they shared. I know he is smiling at all of us today. He is in the Preakness winner's circle, which he was very specific about. What we saw today was the spirit of my father with everyone sticking together and making it happen."

Lang held virtually every job at Pimlico during his career, from hotwalker to agent to director of racing to vice president and eventually general manager. He was a tireless promoter of the Preakness, traveling to the Kentucky Derby one year to release yellow and black balloons over the Derby day parade. The annual Preakness infield party, which helped race-day attendance grow exponentially starting in 1960, was Lang's idea.

Fans wore yellow and black buttons with the words "We Love Chick" on them in his memory. A five-minute video tribute to Lang was played on the Lumatron Board, and was greeted by smiles. Perhaps fittingly, a horse named Baltimore Bob won the biggest race of the day, the Henry Clark Stakes, a $70,000 miler on turf.

"This is a very nice horse and he showed his stuff today," trainer J.B. Secor said. "I'd won two stakes races in 20 years, and now I've won two in two months. I like this a lot better."

Despite the celebration for Lang, the opening day mood at Pimlico was noticeably somber for a lot of attendees, mostly because of the uncertain future of the industry.

Baltimore County resident Valerie Franz said she and her husband, Wayne, have been supporting horse racing in Maryland for 40 years, but they came to Pimlico on Saturday mostly out of a sense of obligation, not joy. Franz carefully eyed her program while snacking on some crackers she brought in her purse.

"We were a little bit sad to see the purses," Franz said. "But being born and bred in Maryland, you feel like you want to support Pimlico even though it's hard. My husband keeps saying this will probably be closed next year."

Matt Zink, who has made opening-day attendance a tradition with his friends since they were high school students at Gilman, wouldn't predict quite that much gloom for the racetrack, but he said he doesn't believe the location in Northwest Baltimore is sustainable over the long haul.

"There aren't many race days anymore, so you've got to get out while you can," said the 35-year-old Zink, who brought his two young kids to the track so they could experience one of the defining memories of his youth. "The races aren't as good and the money is down a lot, but it's still fun. The kids like watching the horses a lot."

Zink, who came to the track with a few of his high school classmates, said he's been to at least 10 consecutive opening days, but he doesn't have any emotional connection to Pimlico.

"There's nothing about this track that's endearing," Zink said. "I'd like to see them get rid of Pimlico and Laurel and open up one track in downtown Baltimore, personally. I think you'd have a lot more people coming and have a lot better atmosphere. No one who comes to Baltimore for a convention is going to come here to watch a race. The location isn't helpful."

Kevin Hutton, who works as a groomer at the Bowie Training Center, said he was disappointed that Pimlico was charging admission ($3) when in previous years it had let people attend opening day for free.

"I think they disappointed a lot of people today with that," said the 47-year-old Hutton, who lives in Baltimore.

Still, Hutton didn't let it dim his enthusiasm during the fourth race, when Lily Quatorze, ridden by jockey Eric Camacho, won the day's second largest purse by a length in a maiden race. Hutton, who is friends with Lily Quatorze's trainer Taryn Tagg, was jumping up and down, bellowing at the horse to hold on down the backstretch.

"I love horses," said Hutton, who was among an announced 9,191 in attendance. "My uncle brought me to the track in Timonium when I was 5 years old. So I've been around it for 40 years. It's more than a hobby for me."

Tom Chuckas, the Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer, said he understands the concerns a lot of people have these days about both Pimlico and the state of the racing industry. Magna Entertainment Corp., which owned Pimlico and Laurel Park, filed for bankruptcy before agreeing to turn over its assets to its Ontario-based parent company, MI Developments.

"It's tough right now," Chuckas said. "The economy hasn't fully rebounded, and our problem with purses and bred funds is the surrounding jurisdictions, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Slots give them a leg up.

Charlestown has a $1 million race tonight. But while gaming is important to give us a level playing field, racing still has to come up with a model that works. It cannot be solely dependent on additional forms of revenue. We have to turn our facilities into multifaceted facilities. Racing is always going to be the centerpiece, but to get a younger demographic, there has to be more activity in the facility."

The Maryland Jockey Club is working toward giving people multiple reasons to come to the track. Saturday, country music artist Steve Azar played a short concert between the fifth and sixth races.

"I think in keeping with a new model, this facility has to be upgraded," Chuckas said of Pimlico. "What specifically has to be done is going to take a longer and more detailed analysis. The facility has a rich tradition, but it's old. It needs to be modernized."

Chuckas said he hopes that people will be willing to give racing at Pimlico a chance, especially if they haven't been to the track in years. And if they don't have a good time, he wants to hear what he can do to change things.

"I'd say to the people who have not been here in a number of years, come back and give us a shot," Chuckas said. "We're very in tune to their needs and desires. We have some limitations with the facility, but there is no excuse for our guests not to have a very good experience."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com twitter.com/KVanValkenburg

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