My day at the races started with unloading horse and kit in the car park by the receiving barn. In front of us was the backstretch of the racecourse, behind us the high-rise apartment blocks of downtown Baltimore. Not the flashy weekday homes of city workers though, these buildings form the skyline of the ghetto.
At Pimlico there is nothing more than a chain link fence between two separate worlds - one of hard work, ambition and money, the other of gunshots, sirens and crime. It’s a strange place.
Once I had settled the mare into her stall I was on my own until the assistant trainer arrived, plenty of time to take in my surroundings.
Horses live, train and race there, treading their days away down the dusty furrows of the shed rows and on the reddish dirt of the track. A motley band of staff tend to them, early mornings and evenings spent working under lights, their daylight hours spent browning in garden chairs under the Maryland sun.
I joined this bizarre but good natured group in their lazing and it was not long afterwards that a gunshot rang out, shortly answered by a few more. While I had sprung several inches skywards from my chair it soon became apparent that the others hadn’t even noticed that downtown Baltimore was rapidly turning into downtown Kabul. Then I found out why. Tentative questioning prompted an amusing few minutes filled with recollections of close encounters during morning exercise. While my inclination would be to assume that some of the more Hollywood-worthy tales were exaggerated, it is telling of the place that I wasn't sure. Midday marked the first race. All of one hundred people were scattered across the grandstand. A month from then, on Preakness Day, there would be upwards of 100,000 there to witness one of the flagship races in the US calendar. However, on that Sunday in April it was impossible to imagine anything but the present; litter and seagulls in the infield, not people.
The horses run in circles. Left-handed. Always. Through the fence that divides the backside from the racecourse we watched this mundane routine. The bright silks and gleaming coats seemed duller there, out of place in the urban wasteland.
At four o’ clock we ran our horse. She finished second-last, disappointing but not unexpected. Then followed the two hour wait for the trailer. Sitting outside, listening to the rustling of straw beds coupled with the distant but constant wail of the law I thought how different this is to home. The barns were neat, and order was apparent in the precisely manicured track. But up close the paint peeled and cobwebs clung to the high windows above the stalls. The place looked as worn out as the workforce surfacing to do their evening chores.
Over the years many a household name has pounded victorious hoofprints into that oval of dirt, but as these are harrowed away within the half hour, so too it seems are any lasting memories of greatness. Unlike at Cheltenham, Goodwood or Aintree it’s impossible to gaze out across the course and hear a crowd that you were never part of roaring home the sepia print heroes of years gone by. Pimlico is just a railed circle of dust where anonymous, mechanical horses grind round endlessly, day after day, year after year, no-one to recall them when they’re gone. It is not, by my definition, a racecourse.