HOME IS THE HORSEMAN
“They buried him by the light of the moon and a flashlight,” the story begins, and though you probably can’t find the spot anymore, that’s of no matter. Dillon Grey, hardscrabble horse trainer, is where he wanted to be for all eternity: in the infield at Pimlico.
Grey died in 1949, his story memorialized, ridiculously enough, in a copied 60-year-old article posted in the press box men’s room at Old Hilltop. It’s a sad story, or maybe it’s a happy one; too many years gone by to tell.
Grey trained horses at what were called the “half-milers” in Maryland: fair tracks with brief meets far from the big time “mile tracks” that Pimlico, most of all, represented. He longed for a shot at the brass ring, but as the years piled up, it became clear it would remain, always, elusive.
His dream indefinitely deferred, Dillon Grey decided he would reach Pimlico one way or the other, in life or, if need be, in death. And so it came to be that, when he died of a heart attack while training horses at Charles Town, his daughter and a friend dug a small hole near the infield flag pole and emptied the urn carrying his ashes into it.
Grey’s are by no means the only ashes scattered at Pimlico. The tradition, the late Dale Austin wrote, may have begun in 1944 with a local musician and businessman who was also an inveterate horse player. Others followed, among them Willie Doyle, who rode 1909 Preakness winner Effendi, and, more recently, Mr. Preakness himself, Chick Lang, gone these 11 years.
It’s not just people who find their final resting place at the home of the Preakness.
Off on a corner of the lot, next to the Preakness barn up at the end of the grazing area, you’ll find a small cross that, for some reason, was adorned this year with a battered necktie. “Pimlico Barney” it reads, the name surrounded by his dates: 1960-1974.
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The 1960, apparently, was more guesswork than certainty, because Pimlico Barney, a small black dog, is said to have shown up one day on the Pimlico backside and never left. Instead, he got himself adopted by then-stall man Harry Jeffra, became Jeffra’s right-hand… err… dog, and a fixture in that small and insular world that is in the truest sense a community.
I make it a point each year, when winter gives way to spring, and the dark of a Laurel Park winter becomes a sunny (sometimes) Pimlico spring, to stop by Pimlico Barney’s grave site. Somebody loved Pimlico Barney enough to remember him in this way; seems like taking a moment to honor that is not too heavy a lift.
Pimlico – let’s be honest – is a terribly designed facility (that wasn’t, for the most part, designed at all) in atrocious condition, a crazy-quilt labyrinth with all the glamor of a downtown Greyhound terminal.
But this, too, is true: ghosts live here, and not just those of Seabiscuit and Cigar and every Triple Crown winner, of Secretariat and Slew and Affirmed and Alydar locked in eternal struggle. Those are the obvious ones, the ones anyone with a passing knowledge of the turf can conjure up.
Dillon Grey is there, too, and Pimlico Barney, Chick Lang, and a dozen or more others making it their final resting place, and the trainers and jockeys and grooms and hotwalkers who’ve worked there, the racetrackers and the bettors, the people depicted in Raoul Middleman’s fabulous murals, and all the generations stretching back through time.
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When you talk to racing folks, not those from here but those who come from out of town to visit, say, for the Preakness, those who live and love the game, they say two things.
First, they say, “This place is a dump,” their tongues lingering on the final word, rolling it around a little, emphasizing it. As if they want to be sure to leave no doubt: this place is a dump!
And then they add: “But I love it.”
Author William Least Heat-Moon has written of his search for places “where time and men and deeds connected,” and while he wasn’t, he could have been talking about Pimlico, and it’s that quality, I think, that leads to the “I love it” addendum.
Renewal’s coming to Pimlico – hard to imagine a place needing it more – and so the challenge before the Maryland Stadium Authority is this: to create a facility that works for the present and future, and still has plenty of room, even an honored spot, for the ghosts.
(Music in the video above is: “Backbay Lounge” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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