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Shorty comes into the office, and Chick tells him not to unlock the elevators until the gates open at 11:30. He does not want the employees dirtying them up. "They'd be wall-to-wall clam chowder by the time people get here," he explains to Shorty.
Shorty agrees, but reminds Chick that a state functionary is scheduled to arrive shortly to inspect the elevators. Chick is wiser than that. "Don't worry about him now," he says. "Nobody with a political job is going to be anywhere at 8:30 on a Saturday morning."
("Me, my father, whoever—you get to be a pretty good people handicapper, too, if you spend your life around a racetrack," says Chick's son Chickie, a handicapper for the Baltimore Sun. "If you don't learn to tell the reallys from the phonies, they'll bury you.")
"I don't care for anyone who doesn't hit it right down the middle," Chick says. He regularly cites a trinity of straight shooters as his heroes: Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, General George Patton and Vince Lombardi. "These are the kind of men who made this country," he says. "These are the men who get it done. I want to be a leader myself. I'm not a rebel; I want to do the accepted thing, but I don't ever want to be a follower. When it is wrong, I want to turn it around."
In his time he has jumped out of his car to help a policeman apprehend a suspect in the midst of a hostile crowd, and he has been hospitalized after taking a fall while chasing a burglar. Once; hearing a cry, he roared out of a hotel room in his underpants and wound up moments later out on the sidewalk wrestling a berserk rapist for possession of a pistol. He takes a perverse delight in telling his children that he is proud when their friends snicker at his haircut and call him Archie Bunker. "But understand," he says, "I never dislike more than three people at the same time. I just don't have the time. Actually, one of my three passed away, so now I have one slot open."
One of the two survivors is currently enshrined in Lang's office, his photograph reposing underneath a nonfunctional toilet seat, the cover of which is decorated with black-eyed Susans. But then most everything at the track features black-eyed Susans, which is Maryland's state flower, matching Maryland's black and gold state colors. They are also the flowers that adorn the winner of Maryland's greatest race—Chick Lang's Preakness. Sometimes—mercifully seldom—the Preakness is even called the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans.
Invariably, though, the Preakness is referred to as The Middle Jewel in the Triple Crown. The Preakness is grateful for such small favors since it falls between the Kentucky Derby, which is pure Americana, and the Belmont, which is a cotillion, very big in the business and society of racing. The Preakness has long been the nondescript one in between, and even Baltimore has come to accept the role.
The first Preakness, won by Survivor, was run exactly 100 years ago next week—May 27, 1873—but there were no renewals in 1891-92-93, so this is only the 98th Preakness. The race is named for a huge bay who was foaled in 1867 and given an Indian name meaning "quail woods," after a place near Paterson, N.J. that George Washington spelled "Preckiness." Preakness the horse left his mark on both sides of the Atlantic. Here there was his own record and the race that was named for him. Abroad he became an involuntary cause c�l�bre. He was taken to England by the 12th Duke of Hamilton, who was apparently as headstrong as the big bay he bought. Man and horse had a dispute, but the duke had the gun, and one day he shot Preakness dead. The furor set off by the incident helped bring animal treatment reforms to the British Isles.
The Preakness was shifted to New York in 1890 when racing was abandoned at Pimlico and did not return there until 1909. At that time it and the Belmont were the preeminent 3-year-old classics; not until after World War I—after Colonel Matt Winn had pushed it along—did the Derby become the first prize. Lang is under no delusion that he is ever going to supplant the Derby, but he has upgraded the Preakness significantly since he arrived at Pimlico in 1960. Nathan Cohen estimates the race now has a real worth of $500,000 a year to the track, and attendance keeps growing. This Saturday, with Secretariat and a special salute to Johnny Unitas (a tribute to beloved No. 19 on May 19), it would not be surprising to see last year's record 48,712 attendance fall handily.
For the Preakness, Lang transforms Pimlico's infield into a suitably sanitized bacchanalia: bands, local celebrities, Miss Preakness, picnics and a general carnival air right down to cotton-candy machines. Even a lacrosse game. Alas, there also has been one distinct failure: nobody has been able to come up with an appropriate Preakness drink to match the Derby's mint julep. Everybody seems happy enough with just beer and crab cakes. "Crab cakes open at 3 to 5 and will probably go down to 1 to 5," says Chick.