With the 144th running of Maryland’s premier sporting event just days away, we asked some of the folks who work so hard behind the scenes to step forward for once, to let everyone know not only what they do, but the pride they take in doing it.
Being associated with the Preakness would be a point of pride for most any Marylander, and these seven people — all of whom work for the Maryland Jockey Club, splitting time between tracks at Pimlico, Laurel, Timonium and, for some, the harness track at Rosecroft — embrace their association with the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans.
When you get right down to it, Bruce Wagner might have the most important job at the Preakness. Because the race doesn’t start until he decides it should start.
So, how does he make that decision? First the horses have to be led into the starting gate.
And then? Well, then it’s literally off to the races.
“The horses need to be under control,” says Wagner, 55, who’ll be standing about 70 feet from the starting gate Saturday, his finger on a button that, when pressed, will send horses, jockeys and about 100,000 paying customers into a frenzy. “When they yell ‘Locked up!’ in a race, that means the back doors are shut, everybody’s in the gate and we’re ready for a start. If it’s quiet, I’ll hit the button, boom!, and send ’em.”
Wagner, who lives on Kent Island with his wife, retired jockey Mary Riley, grew up on a farm in York, Pa., riding show horses. “My father took me to Timonium when I was little,” he says, recalling a long-ago trip to the Baltimore County track, “and I decided I wanted to be a jockey.”
He did become a jockey, a job that lasted “about two years. Then I got too heavy, couldn’t do the weight.”
So he trained horses for a while, then landed a job as an assistant starter at Delaware Park. In 2003, by then a starter for the Maryland Jockey Club, he started his first Preakness.
Not, he hastens to add, that he treats the Preakness different from any other race.
“I don’t really do anything special,” Wagner says. “A starter from Philadelphia Park called me when I was in my 30s, it was my very first Preakness. [He] said, ‘Bruce, you treat that Preakness like you do any other race.’ And he was 100 percent right.”
Mark Dillow’s mom was a horse trainer, and he’s spent nearly four decades at Maryland tracks. But it looks like the family horse racing tradition will end with him — his stepkids, he says, don’t have much interest in the Sport of Kings.
“Nah, they don’t work with the horses at all,” Dillow says as he keeps doing the job he’s handled for the past 10 years, ensuring jockeys are wearing the right colors and designs on their silks (“color custodian” is what it says on his job description, but everyone knows him as the silks man). Still, he’s too busy to worry about any enduring legacy. And truth be told, worrying just wouldn’t fit with the laid-back, fairly unflappable vibe that’s helped make him so good at his job.
“Yeah, I don’t get stirred up too much,” he says. “I’ve always been like that.”
Good thing, too, because while the 52-year-old Glen Burnie resident might not have the most glamorous job at the track, it’s an important one that, if he messes up, could cost some folks money.
As the silks man, Dillow has to ensure the jockeys are wearing the right colors and displaying the proper designs; they’re different for each horse owner, and help people in the stands identify the horses as they race around the track. Jockeys caught wearing improper silks can lead to the trainers getting fined, he says, from $25 to $100.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but Dillow says he doesn’t mind. “I like doing it,” he assures. “It keeps your mind sharp.”
Especially at the Preakness, he notes, given the sheer number of silks he has to sort through and distribute. “Yeah, if you don’t get there early, it can be a pain in the butt,” he acknowledges. “’Cause they have a table as long as the room, probably a 6- or 8-foot table. And if you don’t get there early, the silks’ll be piled up high, all the way down the table.”
Chief of security
This weekend, Michael Singletary essentially will be the mayor of a decent-sized small town at Pimlico — not only because he’ll be in charge of ensuring the safety of some 100,000 visitors, but because he’ll be heading a security staff of 700-plus (up from the average of 30-40 he oversees on on a typical racing day).
“And that’s not counting all of my federal, state and local law enforcement, along with the fire department, who will be here as well,” Singletary says from a desk below the Pimlico grandstand.
That’s a lot of folks to oversee and protect, the 54-year-old from Edmondson Heights acknowledges.
A graduate of Carver Vo-Tech, Singletary spent 23 years as a correctional officer, retiring in 2014 to sign on full time with the Maryland Jockey Club. But his experience with Maryland’s premier horse race goes way back; like many in local law-enforcement, he spent years as part of that extra security. This will be his 29th Preakness.
“Just being a kid growing up in West Baltimore, and being able to run the Preakness, It’s definitely an honor,” says Major Singletary, whose official title is vice president of security operations.
In 50 years of shooting Preakness photos for the Maryland Jockey Club, Jim McCue has captured five Triple Crown winners on film. And there’s no prize for guessing which one was his favorite.
“Secretariat was my all-time favorite, absolutely,” McCue says of the horse that’s pretty much everyone’s favorite, whose Triple Crown wins in 1973 all set speed records that still stand.
It may be a cliche to say someone has seen it all, but when it comes to horse racing in Maryland over the past half-century, McCue, 72, really has. A Vietnam-era Army vet who learned how to shoot pictures while stationed overseas, he first took his camera to the track at Timonium in the summer of 1970, working alongside veteran photographer Jerry Frutkoff. Over the years since, rarely has a race been run at a Maryland track — whether Pimlico, Laurel, Bowie or Timonium — where McCue hasn’t had his lens trained on the horses.
Not every aspect of shooting the Preakness has been a pleasure, acknowledges McCue, who lives in Phoenix, Baltimore County, with his wife, Betty.
McCue says he’ll never forget the tragedy of 2006, when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro pulled up lame shortly after the start of the race. It was later discovered that his right hind leg was broken in numerous places, injuries from which the horse never fully recovered; he was euthanized the following January. “When that horse broke down … that was terrible, right in front of everybody,” he says. “I took pictures, but I showed them to nobody. I don’t believe in showing that stuff to people.”
Happily, there’s more joy in horse racing than sadness, McCue says. With two Triple Crown winners in the past four years, these are thrilling times to be at the track — especially for someone like him, who spends almost all of his time near the winner’s circle. “It never fails to impress me, I don’t care if you’ve won 100 races, that next race you win, when they come down, they’re so happy.
When it comes to betting on the Preakness, Keith Feustle is the man in the know. Or at least the man bettors hope is in the know.
While he’s not the person who makes the odds that dictate how much the winning horses will pay those lucky enough to have bet on them (that’s all done via computer, based on how much money is actually bet), he’s the one whose odds are put out there before the race, printed in the program and the Racing Form — the man whose best guess as to the winners might persuade a bettor or two (especially novices) to lay down a few bucks.
“My job is to give the public a good guide as to what they should be receiving at the betting window, in terms of the odds on each horse,” says Feustle, 51, who’s about to handicap his sixth Preakness.
The trick, he says, is not so much to dig deep into a horse’s racing history, but to concentrate on his most recent runs. You have to consider who’s riding him, who’s training him, who owns him and what sort of success that owner’s had, perhaps most importantly the speed figures, how fast he’s been running. “There’s some variables that go in,” Feustle says, understating the case.
Feustle, who lives in Reisterstown with his family, started working at tracks shortly after graduating from what is now Towson University with a communications degree in 1990.
But his love of the racetrack reaches back to the days when his grandfather was working as a mutuel clerk in the press box at Pimlico and other Maryland tracks, placing bets for media covering the races.
“When I was old enough to drive, I would drive down, meet him on the weekends and just sort of hang out in the press box. That’s where I really soaked everything in.”
This year’s Preakness presents Feustle with something of a challenge; normally, the Kentucky Derby winner is a cinch to be the odds-on favorite in the Preakness. But with both the winning horse, Country House, and the horse that crossed the finish line first only to be later disqualified, Maximum Security, opting to bypass the Preakness, he’s kind-of got to start from scratch.
But that’s OK, he insists. At least trainer Bob Baffert has said he’ll bring Improbable, the pre-race Derby favorite, to Pimlico. “He’s going to be the morning-line favorite if things stay the status quo,” Feustle says.
Kaymarie Kreidel has been on a horse for the past five Preaknesses. But she’s never finished the race.
In fact, she’s never been in the race, though she and her horse spend as much time on the track as any of the 3-year-olds entered in the Preakness. As an outrider, it’s her job to keep the track safe, the horses in line and the race going off on time and without incident.
“We are patrol,” says Kreidel, 47, a jockey for 16 years before signing on as a full-time outrider seven years ago. “We are there to be first on the scene for any incidents that happen, we are there to rescue any riders in trouble, we are there to catch any loose horses. We are basically the rescue squad for the racetrack.”
Fortunately, she says, the horses that make it to the Preakness are veterans, pros who know enough to be on their best behavior.
Not so dependable, however are the crowds, who usually do their part to keep Kreidel and her fellow outriders busy. “Sometimes, people don’t follow the rules, they try to climb the fence and actually run out on the racetrack while we have horses on the racetrack.
Sometimes, she notes, trouble comes from unexpected sources.
“We have police officers, to make sure that no one gets through the fence,” Kreidel says, a look of mock exasperation on her face. “They sometimes get excited and want to lean over the rail, which can spook the horses. So we have to say, ‘Umm, excuse me, officer … ’”
Although her father would take her to the track once in a while (where her bets were more likely based on what color a horse was wearing, rather than its previous performance), Kelly Ryan did not grow up a horse racing fan. In fact, despite growing up in Overlea and attending Parkville High School, she’d never been to a Preakness until 2016.
That’s when it became her job to be there. As a Medstar Sports Medicine doctor working with the Maryland Jockey Club, she’s the first line of defense when it comes to keeping the jockeys, exercise riders and other track personnel healthy.
“You never know what’s going to walk into the office when you’re working at the racetrack,” Ryan says from her office at Laurel Park, where she’s been working the weeks leading up to the Preakness. Earlier in the day, she’d treated one rider who fell off her horse and hurt her backside, an exercise rider who’d been thrown off a horse and a man who to have a giant tic removed.
“My job is to make sure the backstretch employees are getting the medical care they need,” says Ryan, 34, who sees herself as essentially the Maryland Jockey Club’s family doctor.
As such, she sometimes has to deliver bad news. Concussions, Ryan notes, can be a real problem; when someone is thrown or falls off a horse, it’s her job to ensure the concussion protocol is followed. If it indicates a rider might have a concussion, then it’s her job to ground that rider.
Even on Preakness day.
“The problem is, if you have a rider from the outside and you say, ‘Look, you fell and I’m not happy with your exam, you’re not allowed to ride,’ and the next race is the Preakness Stakes, and they’re riding a [possible] Triple Crown winner, what are you going to do?” she asks, knowing what the answer has to be. “It doesn’t matter. If you don’t think that they’re fit, if I don’t think that they’re safe, they’re not allowed to ride.”
Fortunately, that nightmare scenario hasn’t happened … yet.
Which explains, however, why she — and perhaps many other Maryland Jockey Club employees — have something of a love/hate relationship with their highest-profile event.