SI Vault
Frank Deford
May 21, 1973
Chick Lang is in charge at Pimlico, where on Saturday the Preakness will be run, Johnny Unitas honored and a lacrosse game played
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 21, 1973

Man In The Middle Jewel

Chick Lang is in charge at Pimlico, where on Saturday the Preakness will be run, Johnny Unitas honored and a lacrosse game played

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

"But he changed somewhere, and it became harder and harder. After he told someone that I had forgotten who was the employer and who was the employee, after I heard that, I knew I had to leave him. I said, 'Billy, I didn't know you thought of us that way.' The last horse I put him up on was Venetian Way. This was early 1960 and he won the Derby on him, but I was gone by then.

"When I went to work for Hartack, I was the man and he was the boy, but by the time we parted, I was the boy and he was the man."

Last May 20th Lang woke up to find it raining on Preakness Day, and he began to cry. He sat at the foot of the bed and bawled for quite some time until finally his wife Nancy reminded him that he was a grown man, so stop crying. He said he was thinking mostly about the pianos and the cotton-candy machines in the infield.

Opening day for Pimlico this year looked as if it, too, might turn out badly. The sky was dark, and luncheon reservations, usually an accurate barometer of attendance, were light. Lang agreed with Cecil, the track superintendent, that they would probably have to work on the track's surface. Then he cut back on his print order for the day's programs (they are printed on a railroad car that is hauled from track to track with its own press) and sputtered at his imminent misfortune.

He dialed the local weather forecast. "The crucial hours, when people make up their minds, are ten to twelve," he said. "That's when you need the sun. I don't believe this stuff about all the people who were going to work on their lawns who decide to come out to the races if it rains." The forecast called for afternoon clearing, with an unseasonable March high near 70, then high gale winds, falling temperatures and, by night, snow flurries. "Seventy degrees and snow," Chick snorted. "They must be smoking pot over there. They can't pick the weather any better than I pick the horses." So he tried Newark airport; he likes their forecasts better. Newark said clearing in Baltimore pretty soon. Lang beamed. "See?" he said.

The sun burned through at 10:10. It was a gorgeous day. He went out to mingle.

Since Lang is one of the rare track executives who is recognized by his patrons, it has become increasingly difficult for him to drift around and kibitz with the bettors without being harassed by horse-players trying to squeeze a free pass out of him. Because of all the money that goes through the betting windows, many racegoers believe that having to pay admission to the track is an imposition, that such an insignificant sum should be beneath the track's dignity. In point of fact, a track's cut of the mutuel take is so small that printing and servicing a $2 ticket actually costs the track almost twice what it makes on it. Tracks generally must survive on the bagatelles of admissions, concessions and parking. Few men would dare walk up to David Merrick and demand an Annie Oakley for a Broadway hit or try to buck Wellington Mara for a season freebie to the Giants, but everywhere Chick Lang goes—and on the phone and by mail—people have no qualms about fiat out asking him for a pass, or maybe two.

"And what business are you in, sir?" Chick replies. "Oh, tires? Well, how about sending me over four free white-walled radials?"

Paying regulars stop Lang to congratulate him on the appearance of the plant—once a shabby establishment of Cimmerian gloom—the way a housewife might say nice things about her neighbor's new slipcovers. A local character, a sometime balloon retailer named Mr. Diz, accosts Lang with Swiftian logic. "Chick, the one trouble with this racetrack is that now it's too good for the kind of people who go to racetracks."

Farther along, in the clubhouse, a moon-faced old man catches up with Lang and shakes his hand warmly, murmuring gratitude. His name is Harry the Horse Caplan, alias Horse Thief Burke. He was an old companion of the late Damon Runyon, celebrated by the writer for explaining to the cops that he had only picked up the end of a rope—and how was he to know that there was somebody's horse connected to the other end? Horse Thief had been ruled off the tracks for touting. Now the ban was off and he was back, and grateful. A racetrack was about the most favorite place in his life. "Thank you, Chick," he said huskily.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5