Mr. Preakness - By Steve Haskin

(Originally published in the March 27, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

“Mr. Preakness.” No title bestowed upon someone has ever been more fitting. Chick Lang was the Preakness (gr. I), as much so as the Woodlawn Vase, black-eyed Susans, and “Maryland My Maryland.”

Had you never laid eyes on Lang, you would know him in an instant by his crew cut and signature tan bush jacket, every inch adorned with pins gathered over the course of five decades.

Lang, who died March 18 at age 83, made the Preakness what it was to become, and he was the race’s biggest booster, even to the point where he audaciously attempted to raise it above the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in its pageantry. Unlike the Derby, which was self-generated, the Preakness under Lang’s regime became the “fun” race of the three Triple Crown events, and, as a result, people flocked to Baltimore to indulge in the spectacle Lang created—as well as the hospitality.

Lang began his quest to put the Preakness on the same map as the Derby in 1961 after being named assistant racing director of Pimlico. He plotted his strategy with great precision, traveling down to enemy territory, Louisville, Ky., armed with an aerial arsenal never before seen. As thousands gathered along Broadway to witness the annual Kentucky Derby parade, unbeknownst to them, high atop the Brown Hotel, Commander Lang was ready to bombard the proceedings with his deadliest weapon—publicity. Lang, along with Baltimore Sun sports editor Bob Maisel and two other friends, assisted by several bottles of scotch and bourbon, had just finished blowing up 2,000 yellow balloons, on which were printed in black letters “Preakness.” As the grand marshal was passing by, the Baltimore bombardiers dropped all 2,000 balloons on the unsuspecting spectators.

Not content with this stunt, Lang, through an advertising agency, had signs reading “Next Stop Preakness at Pimlico” placed on the sides of all the Louisville busses going to Churchill Downs. The following day the front page headline of the Louisville Courier-Journal read: “Pimlico Invades Louisville.” As Lang said, “I knew then I had made it.”

Over the years Lang shared his wealth of stories with friends and just about anyone else who struck up a conversation with him—and even those who didn’t.

One such story was about his first exposure to an unknown horse from Venezuela named Canonero II. Lang was in Florida in the winter of 1971, taking nominations for the Preakness. One evening at the Miami Springs Villas near Hialeah, where he was staying along with Fasig-­Tipton’s John Finney and Larry Ensor, he received a phone call from someone with a thick Spanish accent who said his name was Baptista and he wanted to nominate his horse to the Preakness. Lang immediately thought of Fulgencio Batista, who had been removed from power in Cuba by Fidel Castro, and assumed Finney and Ensor were playing a joke on him.

Lang asked who the caller was, and he told him he was the owner of Canonero. “Spell the horse’s name, because I never heard of him,” Lang said.

“You will,” the caller replied.

Lang wrote the name down on the back of a cocktail napkin and told the caller he would contact the representatives of the Derby and Belmont and put in those nominations as well.

When he saw Finney and Ensor having cocktails, he told them about the mysterious caller, and they assured him they were not the ones playing a joke. Finney did some checking and told Lang, “Someone’s pulling your leg; I can’t find any horse by that name.”

Lang took out the cocktail napkin and started to crumple it up and throw it in the trash, but decided he better put in the nominations just in case it turned out to be legitimate, which he was later told it was.

A few months later Lang watched Canonero II, who would go on to win the Preakness, score a shocking victory in the Derby, but like everyone else, had no idea who the horse was. Then, as the horse was returning to the winner’s circle, it hit him “like a bolt of lightning.” It was the horse whose name he had scribbled on the napkin and had almost thrown away. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted. “It’s the mystery horse. I can’t believe it.”

When it comes to Chick Lang, you can believe it.

Steve Haskin  is the senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse.

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