Alibis, laughs, and lox aplenty at Hilltop tradition

by John Scheinman

If there is still a debate whether Baltimore is a northern or southern city, the Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico Race Course two days before the Preakness Stakes should tip the scales toward the latter.

This is what southern hospitality is supposed to look like, and ask anyone in horse racing lucky enough to get on the Triple Crown trail and they will tell you the middle jewel is the one at which they are treated finest.mjc scaled Preakness138colorpos72

In the Pimlico dining room Thursday morning, white linens and vases of Black-eyed Susans at each table, the wonderful tradition continued.

As the program always states, “It started with a cup of coffee. In the late 1930 on the porch of the historic Pimlico Clubhouse, a group of trainers, owners and greater and lesser dignitaries would gather in the mornings to expound upon the merits of their horses . . .”

The breakfast itself began in the 1940s, in hindsight a masterstroke by publicity director David Woods, and it gathers media, owners, trainers, celebrities and anyone smart enough and lucky enough to be at the track during the work week.

Morning starts with a buffet (and sickly sweet Black-Eyed Susans in a commemorative glass, if you manage to flag a waitress) fit for minor gods: Applewood smoked bacon, fried chicken with waffles, chipotle creamed chipped beef, redskin home fried potatoes, crab and spinach casserole, lox and bagels, biscuits, and for the health conscious – oatmeal.

“I killed more lox than 12 Jews in a minyan,” said a happy and full-bellied Dave Ginsburg of the Associated Press afterward.

A wise old magazine editor once said, “You’ve got to feed me to read me,” and those words to commit journalism by are taken to heart at the Alibi Breakfast.

With the sun shining in on this bacchanalia, the din grew as if through photosynthesis. Wisely, the Alibi Breakfast speeches and awards began with an invocation by the Most Rev. William Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore.

If an archbishop cannot command silence, those who follow might as well just move their lips.

Before offering up his prayer for a safe and happy race, Lori said, “If it rains this Saturday, we should blame it on one mysterious and powerful being – Kegasus.”

[pullquote]“If it rains this Saturday, we should blame it on one mysterious and powerful being – Kegasus.”[/pullquote]

So began the laugh lines, mixed liberally with heartfelt acceptance speeches thanking anyone and everyone right down to dear, old mom.

One by one, the luminaries rose to the podium to pay forward congratulations.

Scott Garceau, who co-hosted with Keith Mills, praised track president Tom Chuckas for changing the culture of the Preakness infield from chaotic to merely wild. Chuckas recognized Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas for saddling his 38th, 39th and 40th Preakness runners. Sue Steele, Miss Preakness this year, took a bow as a 16-year survivor of breast cancer.

Horse Player NOW founder Jeremy Plonk accepted the Special Award of Merit, and thanked at least as many people as were in the room. Yet it’s wrong to knock a guy who describes his company’s mission like this: “We’re teaching fans and we’re driving handle.”

Esteemed Daily Racing Form writer Jay Privman stepped up for the David F. Woods Memorial Award, given for best Preakness story from the prior year, and finished with a passionate plea for the powers that be (the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame nominating committee) to do the right thing and enshrine the great and legendary trainer King Leatherbury.

WBAL-TV Sports Director Gerry Sandusky accepted one of two Old Hilltop Awards for coverage of racing with excellence and distinction and couldn’t resist taking shots at his own name, too similar to that of the monster of Penn State, Jerry Sandusky.

“If you’re Jerry with a ‘J’ you’re doing 50 to life. If you’re Gerry with a ‘G’ you’re coming to life in your 50’s!” Sandusky said.

Mike Penna, of the Horse Racing Radio Network, took the other Old Hilltop Award, and he took a shot at the archbishop.

“I have a bone to pick with the archbishop,” is a dangerous opening gambit for any speech, but Penna forged on. “I’m a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan … Now I know why we lost twice to the Ravens last year. They had a higher power working for them.”

At the conclusion of all this heartfelt frivolity, Garceau and Mills directed their attention to the participants in this year’s Preakness. It started with “Shug” McGaughey, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Orb. He didn’t need an alibi, so he just talked about how wonderful his horse is doing. Yes, they made him go back to the heartbreak excitement of 1989, when Sunday Silence nosed out his majestic Easy Goer in a thrilling edition of the Preakness, and Shug remained gracious in defeat 24 years later.

Marylander Stuart Janney, co-owner of Orb and vice chairman of the Jockey Club, said, “I’ve been coming out here since I was a kid. There are probably five or six Preakness I haven’t attended … This has always been part of my schedule, and it’s so much fun. I wasn’t here because I had a horse to race.”

Finally, they got to Lukas, and he not only grabbed the microphone, but strode in his cowboy hat to the front of the room and let fly.

Not an Alibi Breakfast goes by where Lukas, 77, doesn’t detonate an off-color bomb, but he warmed up by lobbing a grenade at McGaughey, 62, whom he suggested is catching up to him in age.

“The other day, Shug was driving back from Keeneland and (his wife) Alison was watching TV, and she called Shug and said, ‘Be careful, there’s an idiot driving the wrong way on Route 64,’ and Shug said, ‘One? There’s a hundred of them.’”

Then the off-color joke came, which we won’t repeat in a family online publication such as this.

[pullquote]“I’ve still got it,” said Lukas, who rode to breakfast standing on the back of a free-wheeling golf cart. “In fact, I’m enjoying it more now than I ever did.”[/pullquote]

“Tip your waiter,” a seemingly dour Garceau said.

“I’ve got more!” Lukas gleefully offered.

“I’m not sure we do,” Garceau said, diffusing any further incoming.

So it goes each year with the Alibi Breakfast, and it’s one of the easy graces that make the Preakness Stakes the best of the Triple Crown races. It’s the touch of hospitality the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, try as they might, cannot match.

Spring long has been associated with renewal, and the Preakness, in its 138th year, with its attendant charms, remains a touchtone for Baltimore. To tire of joys such as this is to tire from the engagement in life.

“I’ve still got it,” said Lukas, who rode to breakfast standing on the back of a free-wheeling golf cart. “In fact, I’m enjoying it more now than I ever did.”

At the Alibi Breakfast, he didn’t need to make any excuses for that.