It is seven o'clock, in the gray morning of the day the race meeting begins when the man who runs the track drives through the gates. Most racetracks nowadays are run by accountants, which may be why so many of them are such arid and joyless casinos. But the man who runs this one, Pimlico, and who will oversee the running of the Preakness there this Saturday, is Chick Lang—a friendly chunk of a fellow, an open sort of man who wears his heart on his sleeve and replicas of black-eyed Susans everywhere else. He moves through the doors and begins searching out his associates: Walter and Baby Cakes, Shorty and Skeets and the rest.
Lang is known everywhere as Chick, as his father was before him, and his father's father, and his father's father. Lang's own son is in line for the name, although like all previous incipient Chick Langs he is serving an apprenticeship as Chickie or Chickadee. The incumbent Chick looks quite the way a man named Chick should look, which is proper because people at racetracks are named for reasons.
Eatable Pat, for example, one of Lang's favorite backstretch figures, earned his name by hanging around the track kitchen, betting newcomers that he could outeat them, which he could. And Jupiter Bill (or, familiarly, Jupe) knew the birth date of every jockey and trainer and picked the races by horoscope. There are equally good reasons why Sweet Potatoes, Mr. Squirrel, Goofy Gerald, Drop Cord, Tenderfoot and Hard Times were so named. And so, too, with Chick, notwithstanding the fact that he is 46 now and a grandfather. But always Chick: unregenerate crew cut, eternal good humor, adolescent mischievousness and a chubby countenance.
As the squire of Pimlico and special guardian of the track's great race, the Preakness, Lang holds mixed credentials. He is a high school dropout, and the only employment he ever had in the world outside the track was as an unskilled laborer. At the track, however, he is bred for class on both sides.
His father was one of the foremost riders of his time and rode the Kentucky Derby winner in 1928; his maternal grandfather, John P. Mayberry, was a trainer who saddled the Derby winner in 1903. Lang himself has done virtually every job there is to do around a track. As general manager, his love for his present position is so all-pervading that Nathan Cohen, the vice-president of Pimlico, says, "Chick's enthusiasm can get downright sickening."
Lang is worried because it looks dangerously like rain on opening day. Instinctively he finds the bright side. "If I ever was anywhere when natural disaster struck, I would try to get to a racetrack, because I would feel safe there," he says. "When I go over to the back-stretch, I have this feeling like, 'Hey, Ma, I'm back!' The school books are on the kitchen table and the icebox door is open. You know? Sometimes I like to walk out to the infield by myself and sit there and look back at it all. What a feeling!"
"You see," Nathan Cohen says, "until Chick started working at Pimlico, he had no home."
As a jockey's son, Lang spent his school years transferring from Maryland to Florida to New York, and sometimes to and from Louisiana. There were no roots. He has now become a dedicated Baltimorean and Marylander, fiercely proud of the place where he has chosen to live. "This is a tough town, and I can say that because it's my home," Lang says, "but I won't let anybody from New York say it."
The Langs came from Hamilton, Ontario, but the family had ties in Baltimore. Chick was born there and lived off and on with his grandmother in a house near Pimlico. The life of a transient was hardly glamorous. Chick's father enjoyed his best riding years before his son was born, and he failed to invest his earnings wisely. He was, besides, the kind of man who would trim even a short roll if a friend made a touch. At 5'4" he also was just a smidgen big for a jockey and in his riding comebacks the battle with overweight began to do him in.
He had wanted his Chickie to become a veterinarian, but what young Lang wanted was to be a jockey like his father. That dream dissolved when he grew into a 6-footer weighing, now, 215 pounds. It was as a hot-walker and exercise boy that Chickie broke into racing, helping his father as the older man's health failed. Chick Lang, the nation's leading rider in 1921, the man who won the '28 Derby on Reigh Count, died at the age of 42, broke and coughing. "He had lived most of his life on grapefruit, Melba toast, cigarettes and coffee," his son says. A portrait of the jockey in his Derby silks hangs opposite Lang's office desk.