Sunrise at Old Hilltop (aka Pimlico Race Course) | A Behind the Scenes Tour
Ever wonder what happens behind the scenes at Pimlico Race Course in the week leading up to the Preakness Stakes? You have to get up early (and I mean REALLY early!) to experience the best kept secret in Baltimore!
Every year, in the week leading up to Preakness, Pimlico (originally known as Old Hilltop before it was flattened for better views) opens its gates to horse racing fans for a chance to see the track and stables, meet the trainers and jockeys, and even watch the horses train.
I grew up riding and showing horses in the ring and look forward to any chance to be around them and back in the barn. So, this year, I recruited another former rider friend to join me in waking up before dawn to take the Sunrise Tour at Old Hilltop.
Tours are free and start bright and early at 6 a.m. and run every 15 minutes or so until 9 a.m. Tuesday through Friday before the race. I hear that Friday is the busiest of the four days. We visited on Wednesday earlier this week and planned to get there before the first tour began at 6 a.m. If you watched the race today, you saw how muddy the track was for the 143rd Preakness Stakes. It's been raining for over a week and a half here in Maryland and when we toured on Wednesday morning it was no exception. Thankfully though, the rainy day resulted in less crowds, so we were able to make it into the 2nd tour group of the morning.
We set off in our group with Jenn Miller, a Jockey with one year of racing under her belt, leading the way. Jenn reminded us that horse racing is the oldest sport in the country with its roots dating back to the 1700s and Pimlico is the 2nd oldest race course.
First up on the tour, we met with a veteran Jockey who showed us Jockey equipment from the feather-light silks to a used saddle with leather so thin it looked like worn paper. We learned that the silk colors are chosen by the horse's owner and that the Jockeys wear several pairs of goggles at a time, depending on how muddy the course is. They are constantly flipping up muddy goggles to reveal a clean pair. You can imagine all of the dirt and mud being kicked up on a rainy race day like today - I wonder how many pairs of goggles the Jockeys had on today?! He said the most he had worn was 7 pair for one race.
He also showed us the vests Jockeys wear to prevent cracked ribs in the event they are trampled after a fall (and they were not as padded as I would have thought!) and we got to hold a pair of Jockey's boots which weighed practically nothing. Jenn, our tour guide, also demonstrated how Jockey's train on a pommel horse on springs that mimics the horse's movements and works every single muscle in the Jockey's body. Talk about a full body workout!
Then we headed back to the barns where we saw some of the horses being groomed. The horses get a bath every time they are exercised. We also got a glimpse of Tenfold (today's 3rd place winner!) in one of the stalls (behind all the beautiful the flowers).
Next we met with the Farrier who handles the shoeing at Pimlico Race Course. He showed us different types of horseshoes and the tools to shoe the horses.
We got to see the difference in size between a thoroughbred race horseshoe and a draft horseshoe - which was the perfect segue to our next stop - the Budweiser Clydesdales!
There are 150 Budweiser Clydesdales that travel the country in teams for events. We saw 9 of them in the barns at Pimlico. They come to perform at the Preakness Stakes every year. Unfortunately, they didn't get to perform at the race this year due to the heavy rain and track conditions. We learned that their performance is weather dependent for the safety of the horses and the Jockeys. Between the weight of these enormous draft horses and the carriages they pull, they can affect the track footing. Even though they may not always get to perform for the Grandstand on race day, they still get exercised throughout the week.
Aren't these gentle giants gorgeous?!
We didn't get to visit each of the Budweiser Clydesdale's stalls, but we were able to get up close and personal and pet the the sweet Baltimore Police draft horses Slurpee and Big D (aka "Dino").
Back inside and out of the rain, we visited the Jockey's locker room and lounge where we saw racks of brightly colored silks, whips, saddles, etc.
All of the silks are set up for each day's races on this rack. Each row of hooks is numbered for the day's first race, second race, and so on.
If an owner's silks are missing, which occasionally happens, there is a fine.
We also learned that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing"!
And this scale next to the week's silks is the most important thing in the Jockey locker room - those Jockeys have to meet some seriously strict weight requirements!
We learned that not only are they weighed here before the race, but they are also weighed after the race in the winner's circle, too.
The paddock stalls were already set up for the big race and on race day the horses are saddled here and then taken out to the course.
Right out of the paddock, we headed back onto the track where we spotted the iconic Pimlico weather vane, which is painted in the winner's colors.
We retraced our steps through the empty Grandstand back out to the track where horses were still being exercised.
We stayed in the rain for a bit to watch the horses train, while the other tour groups were waiting for their tours to begin.
Our tour took a little over an hour, but I think times could vary depending on your tour guide.
As we were muddying up our boots on our way out, we passed these two trainers getting ready to exercise the horses. Did you know that race horses train with a companion horse called a lead pony?! The primary task of a lead pony is to help a race horse with its training. The lead pony is strapped to the race horse to restrain the thoroughbred until it moves into full speed. Look at these best buds!
It was a great morning (even in the rain!) and even after our hour long drive back from Baltimore we were back home by 9 a.m.!
Today's 143rd Preakness Stakes winner, Justify, was scheduled to arrive later that day. So although I think we chose a less crowded day to visit, my advice might be to plan to arrive early and brave the larger crowds on either Thursday or Friday when more of the race horses will have already arrived.
Have you ever toured Old Hilltop (aka Pimlico)?
And did you watch the race today?