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.

16 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Cgriff

Wonderful article on an old school publicity guy.

The balloon story.....PRICELESS!

Thanks, Steve!

23 Mar 2010 12:57 PM
Somethingroyal

Thank you for writing such a wonderful article. The industry has lost a giant. R.I.P Chick and please give a big pat on the neck to both Big Red's. Oh, and please find them both a carrot or two.

23 Mar 2010 1:11 PM
needler in Virginia

Racing has lost yet another of those "characters" that make its' history so special. Mr Lang will be sorely missed. Thank for this, Steve; it's good to remember where we came from, and how we got where we are.... both the good and the bad bits.

Cheers and safe trips.

23 Mar 2010 1:57 PM
Dawn

Lang is also credited with opening up the infield to the public on Preakness day.

Plans call for his ashes to be scattered at Pimlico, either on opening day, or during Preakness week.

RIP Mr. Lang.

23 Mar 2010 2:20 PM
Rachel

I always thought the Cannonero story was a hoot, but the balloon and bus stories are hysterical!

23 Mar 2010 3:13 PM
Gary

When Chick first saw Secretartiat run, an awe struck Chick Lang said “It was as if God decided to make the perfect racehorse” and we all know that Secretartiat fulfilled that promise all the way to the Triple Crown and beyond.

The Maryland Jockey Club announced Friday it will rename the Hirsch Jacobs Stakes in honor of Lang and the Grade 3 sprint will be run on Preakness day, May 15.

Throughout his career, Lang held every job imaginable on the race track, from hotwalker to general manager to jockey’s agent. But his happiest years were at Pimlico.  "Chick did everything at the track in his life but ride a horse," said Nancy Lang, his wife of 63 years. "Chick always said he loved racing more than he loved me, and that was OK."

During Lang’s tenure at Old Hilltop, Preakness attendance rose from 30,659 to 87,945.

In 1977, a strike by parimutuel clerks at Pimlico threatened the running of the Preakness, Mr. Lang proclaimed, "We're going to run the Preakness if it has to be run down Howard Street."

One of the biggest crisis Chick faced was when Genuine Risk, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby in 65 years, appeared to have been interfered with by Codex entering the stretch run of the Preakness. When Codex and Angel Cordero finished first and survived the foul claim of Genuine Risk jockey Jacinto Vasquez, the owners of the filly, Bert and Diana Firestone, filed a protest against the stewards' decision with the Maryland Racing Commission. A week dragged on before the original result was upheld. In the meantime, threatening mail poured in to Mr. Lang and the Cohens from people who thought Genuine Risk should have been declared the winner.

After Pimlico, Lang worked alongside his grandson, Jeff, as WBAL radio’s racing analyst. While with WBAL, he earned several distinguished awards as a journalist and producer including two Eclipse awards, the highest award in the racing industry.

Chick Lang was fond of saying that he was not brought into racing, but that he was "born" into it. His roots in the industry run deep. His great-grandfather, John Mayberry, was a Kentucky Derby winning trainer in 1903 and his father, Chick Lang Sr., won the 1928 Kentucky Derby aboard Reigh Count. His son, Chickie, was a racetrack executive at Oaklawn Park and Retama Park and his grandson, Bart Lang, is currently the Director of Racing at Lone Star Park. "Chick was a marketing genius," said Lou Raffetto, CEO of the National Steeplechase Association  "He always looked at the racetrack from a horseman's perspective," he said. "Not that he didn't care about the patrons, but Chick cared about horsemen more than most racetrack managers."

"Chick was Mr. Preakness, a horseman through and through, who loved racing to the very core of his being," said Karen De Francis, former co-owner of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Lang had been hospitalized since December 26th. Lang’s wishes were to be cremated and to have his ashes spread at Pimlico in the Preakness winners’ circle near the cupola. A decision has not been finalized but the jockey club says a ceremony could take place on the opening day of the Pimlico spring meeting (April 17) or during Preakness week.

23 Mar 2010 5:39 PM
Linda in Texas

I think the moral of Mr. Lang and a tribute to him is that he obviously enjoyed life and provided that same thing for his friends and at the same time was terribly serious about his chosen field. Horses and Racing.

I am so glad Mr. Lang did enter Canonero II,as i respected that horse and enjoyed his handlers and supporters tremendously.

And how much joy Canonero II brought to his native country will probably never be repeated. I can hear the announcer to this day who really must have been taken by surprise also. So thank you Mr. Lang, you have left a legacy that will be hard to equal. May you rest in peace. And thank you Gary for your nice tribute and lovely words and a little history about Mr. Lang. And thanks Steve as always and in the mean time wishing you a very safe journey.

23 Mar 2010 8:29 PM
Gary

Why Linda in Texas, you are very welcome,

I would have and could have written a lot more but this blog probably wouldn’t allow that many characters. There are not enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe how much the man loved horse racing.

I basically copied and pasted the best parts of several articles I read, mixed in with a few of my words and changes.  You know what they say, to steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research, LOL

My Dad first took me to the track when I was 8 years old (1962), we live in Maryland and I still do. I learned to read the form in 1971 and I’ve been playing the ponies ever since.  I was a regular at the Maryland tracks, Laurel, Bowie, Pimlico for years until the internet made it big, and I still go to a lot of the big events, or when friend’s have horse’s running, and you can be sure if they have a ceremony for Chick, I’ll be there!!!

23 Mar 2010 10:21 PM
Mike Sullivan

I live in southern California now but grew up in Baltimore and spent hundreds if not a thousand days at Pimlico over 25 years, attending 8 Preaknesses before becoming involved as a breeder and owner myself in the late 90's.Chick Lang was the perfect host and horseman at Pimlico. We had several meetings and luncheons on the backstretch when I was involved with Menifee's Triple Crown chase of Charismatic in 1999. Chick was horse-racing's Alex Trebek when it came to giving Q & A's among all the fans who gathered to see the morning workouts at Pimlico Preakness week and he would walk with several different groups each year. I have had a picture of the two of us in the stable area with Charismatic grazing after being bathed and Silverbulletday in the background in the Stakes barn area. His pictures are also inside several of my racing albums at Churchill, Saratoga's Hall of Fame Museum and Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky. I was always proud to include him in those albums and enjoyed all the articles written about him over the years. I've kept that picture in my office and home mantel and anyone who saw the picture as a "maiden viewer", would ask who he was? Well,You only had to spend 1 hour with him to know it was a special treat to know him, share his knowledge of history, his stories about Bill Hartack and his openess to anyone interested in the game. Chick Lang you will be missed and you'll always be thought of whenever I'm in town to visit family or spend a day at the races. Maryland's Top three, Vince Bagli, Jim McKay and now Chick Lang have taken that refreshing walk out to Maryland's pastures, And Chick, you were right, We did beat Cat Thief all 5 times we challenged him in 98' and 99' until Menifee became injured before the Classic at Gulfstream Park. Yes, Cat Thief won that race with our regular rider, Pat Day just as you told me he would.Got another good tip the first Saturday this May?

23 Mar 2010 11:20 PM
Bellwether

A REEL MAN...A REEL PROMOTOR...THANKS CHICK...

24 Mar 2010 2:33 AM
Hal

Warm and wonderful man and a great friend and mentor to many....

Will be sorely missed

24 Mar 2010 9:40 AM
AReasonablySmartMan

As Chick would often say, "class tells in horses and people."

Chick Lang was high class!

His "Manure Dejour" column in The Jockey News is fondly remembered.

24 Mar 2010 11:22 AM
RacingThroughTheAges

Mr. Lang was oviously a great, old school entrepreneur. Racing needs more renditions of him today. It would be great if the Racing Hall of Fame could somehow honor him in their beauitful Preakness Garden in Saratoga this year.

24 Mar 2010 1:27 PM
Bill Daly

Chick really did it all.  He was Bill Hartack's agent during which time Bill won several Derbies.  He was also instrumental in the birth of the Maryland Million.  He, Jim McKay and Billy Boniface were the driving forces behind that groundbreaking series of races.  Chick was also a good guy and will surely be missed by all who knew him. His ashes will join many other racetrackers in The Free State who will be fondly remembered.

24 Mar 2010 3:51 PM
TerriV

Wonderful stories.  Racing has some of the best.  Every time one of these extraordinary characters leaves us, racing deflates just a bit.  

24 Mar 2010 5:54 PM
Fran Loszynski

Great article Steve.  I know so much more about this great man. That's why I'm a sentimentalist, and  a believer in coincidences when it comes to horseracing. Always will be. A racehorse is a special animal and all of us that love them I think are pretty special!

25 Mar 2010 8:24 AM

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