Because “looking back” is apparently my new beat: scroll down to find my posts on week-old articles about Glen Davis’ cuticles and a five-year old article on Tim Duncan’s dubious aesthetic appeal…anyway, I’m sticking with the story that I’ve been out of town. Or in a “lite” coma or fugue state or something. This is only because I know how unconvincing it would seem if I said I was “too busy” to link to this terrific article by Steve Hendrix from last Saturday’s Washington Post about Pimlico Racetrack’s grooms and horse handlers. The Preakness, you might remember, happened on Saturday. The apparently unbeatable Big Brown won. Yeah, last Saturday. Anyway:
The 44-year-old [Ballmer native Darryl Harris] is one of 120 grooms, hot walkers and other stable hands who live in the Pimlico barns, sleeping above the costly animals they care for seven days a week, four seasons a year. At most race tracks, tending the ponies has become a profession made up almost entirely of Latino immigrants. But Pimlico, an unlikely patch of inner-city horse country, still draws heavily on surrounding Baltimore for its barn workers. And Scott, for one, is equally at home on both sides of the high chain-link fence that separates the stables from the streets.
“Look at this, a loose horse,” Scott said blithely one morning last week when a panicky, untethered thoroughbred came running out from between the barns. Instead of backing away, Scott walked directly toward the skittish animal, arms outstretched, an urban horse whisperer. “Shhh, shhh, shhh — want a peppermint?” he cooed, crinkling his cigarette pack to make the animal think a treat was being unwrapped. Instantly the horse settled, slowed and let Scott get a hand under its harness. “Whose horse is this?” Scott called as heads poked from surrounding barn doors to see the action.
This track-side community, known as the backstretch, will be largely invisible to today’s crowded grandstand, a distant glimpse of barn roofs above the thundering blur of jockey colors as the Preakness runners come out of the first turn. But the backstretch is an essential and fabled corner of the racing world, home to the resident army of low-paid workers that keep high-end horses ready to run.
“Horses have to be fed and walked every single day of the year,” said Donna Chenkin, the head of Anna House, a family support program for stable workers at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. The child-care center she runs opens each day at 5 a.m., when the horses are ready for a morning gallop and their stalls are ready for a good mucking out. “If these people weren’t living in the backstretch, there would be no racing.”
The rest of the piece is eminently worth reading, although the picture it paints of life in the backstretch is unavoidably bleak. But if it’s hard to imagine living in the backstretch at Pimlico, I find it almost equally difficult to imagine being in the infield at Pimlico, with the folks depicted in these almost wordless (if hardly sound-less) videos by Baltimore Sun videographer Karl Merton Ferron. Imagine Heavy Metal Parking Lot without the fellow-feeling, Maiden or long hair and with more violence, lite-er beer and a general sense of anarchy pickled and slowed by booze. GC might post one of the videos, but it’s worth going through the different infield-scene vids separately. Especially if you were considering quitting drinking.