It was Derby Week 1961. Thousands of people were gathered along Broadway to witness the annual Kentucky Derby Parade. This year, however, they were in for a big surprise. Unbeknownst to them, high above the parade, an aerial attack unlike anything they'd ever seen was about to commence.
In one of the upper floors of the Brown Hotel, overlooking Broadway, Charles J. "Chick" Lang, the mastermind of this audacious bombing mission, was getting ready to strike. Pimlico's zealous new assistant racing director, with the help of Baltimore Sun sports editor Bob Maisel and two other friends, had just finished blowing up 2,000 yellow balloons, assisted by bottles of bourbon and scotch. Printed on each balloon, in black letters, was the word "Preakness."
At the height of the parade, as the Grand Marshal was passing by, the bombardiers proceeded to drop all 2,000 balloons on the unsuspecting spectators. In addition to this brazen assault on the Derby Parade, Lang, through an advertising agency, had large signs, reading, "Next Stop Preakness at Pimlico" placed on the sides of all the buses in Louisville that ran to Churchill Downs.
Lang's intrusion on the sanctity of the Kentucky Derby was reflected in the following day's Louisville Courier-Journal. "The headline on the front page read: 'Pimlico Invades Louisville,' " Lang recalled. "I knew then I had made it."
Not one to rest on his laurels, Lang returned the following year, again targeting the Derby Parade. This time, he brought a high-powered slide projector called a space light. When the Grand Marshal and the Derby Queen were being introduced, Lang turned on the projector, reflecting a large advertisement for the Preakness on the side of the building across the street. "When we hit the light, you could hear the crowd gasp all at once," Lang said. "When I went to the track the next day, Churchill's president, Wathen Knebelkamp, asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was just trying to get some publicity."
So was born "Mr. Preakness," a title Lang wore proudly through his four decades as assistant racing director, racing director, and finally vice president and general manager of Pimlico. Through all those years, Lang ate, slept, and breathed the Preakness--a one-man siren, luring trainers and fans to Old Hilltop with the intoxicating fragrance of black-eyed Susans. Like a barker at a sideshow tent, he enticed fans with his favorite sales pitch: "Come see the Kentucky Derby winner in his first public appearance." When he once referred to the Derby as a prep for the Preakness, and it was picked up in the Louisville papers, Churchill Downs racing secretary Doc Lavin lashed into him for insulting the Derby before throwing him out of his office.
"I love the Derby," Lang said. "In fact, I have the Derby on both sides of my family. My father, Charles 'Chick' Lang, rode Reigh Count to win the Derby in 1928, and my grandfather on my mother's side, John P. Mayberry, trained Judge Himes to win the 1903 Derby.
"When I went to work for Pimlico in 1960, the Preakness was dying. There had been no Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948, and the Preakness had become just a stop between the Derby and the Belmont."
It was after he convinced a reluctant Ben and Herman Cohen, owners of Pimlico, to open the infield to the public on Preakness Day that Lang officially earned his title. A flop at first, attracting only 800 fans, it finally caught on thanks to several of Lang's promotions. Now, over 50,000 jam the Pimlico infield each year. Lang became a larger-than-life figure, with his distinctive crew cut and familiar jacket, adorned from top to bottom with pins collected over the years.
Lang may have been a great promoter and salesman, which also helped him during his days as a jockey's agent, but he was first and foremost a horseman who held just about every job there was on the backstretch.
The Langs and Thoroughbred racing are synonymous. Lang's grandfather, Charles Percival, owned horses. His father not only won the Derby, but was the leading rider in America in 1921. All three generations of Langs were known as "Chick." Lang's son, Charles Robert, who was an executive at Pimlico, Oaklawn, and Retama Park, became known as "Chickie." He retired in 1994 due to failing health and died later that year. Chickie's son, Bart, who ended the run of Charleses, also became an official in Arkansas and in Illinois.
On Lang's maternal side, in addition to his grandfather, his uncle, Jim Arthur, was a trainer; and Jim's brother, Vernon, was a jockey. Back on his paternal side, his father's brother, Loyd Lang, was a jockey.
"We're proud of the fact we've had five generations of Langs in racing, and all five made their mark," said Lang, who was born and raised right outside the gates of Pimlico in 1926. "When people ask me how long I've been in racing, I tell them 76 years. They always answer, 'I thought you were 76 years old,' and I tell them, 'I am. I didn't come into racing; I was born into racing. You know, Jesus wasn't the only guy born in a stable.' "
Lang lived a nomadic life as a child, following his father from Florida to New York to Maryland to Louisiana. He never went past high school, but at speaking engagements in later years, he'd have himself introduced as a "Road Scholar."
Lang's first official job on the track was working as a gofer for his uncle, Jim Arthur, when he was 12. "My house was located where the media parking lot is now, and before I got my work permit, I had to climb over the fence to get in," Lang recalled. He would do odd jobs and bring back coffee from the kitchen, then moved up, taking care of the pony and cleaning out his stall. Everyone referred to him as either "Chicklets," "Chickadee," or "Little Chick."
"The first big thing they'd let me do was ride the pony around the shed," Lang said. "Then came the big day, the first time you went out on the track on a horse. What a feeling that was. Your heart beats a million times a minute and your Adam's apple feels like a grapefruit. There you are out on Pimlico Racetrack, where all the great horses and jockeys competed."Continued...