A Winning Combination at Pimlico for Preakness

The Life
Jesse Fikes and son Michael watch the horses in the paddock at Pimlico on Thursday. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Many people will tell you that their favorite race of the Triple Crown is the Preakness. There is a lot of joy and bon vivant associated with a race that advertises one to “Get Your Preak On!” From the moment you arrive at Pimlico Race Course, the staff welcomes you and the track wraps its arms around you. Yes, it’s a ratty, old track in desperate need of a makeover. Like a grande dame who puts on airs when the company arrives, this track can’t be denied its incredible place in horse racing history. And it looks great with all the colorful Black-Eyed Susans and decorations. So the fans flock for fun on Preakness weekend and rejoice in the proud traditions of Pimlico!

One of the most relaxed traditions Preakness weekend is the Alibi Breakfast. It started decades ago at the Pimlico Clubhouse, where the old timers and horse folks would gather in the morning and tell tales. Today, it is a gathering of trainers, fans, horse folks and media, who double down on chicken and waffles (plus a magnificent Southern breakfast buffet) and then impart stories about the Preakness contenders. All in good fun, the trainers will often rib each other. It starts with a wonderful invocation, moves quickly through a celebration of awards and then we sit back to hear some great horse stories. 

Conquest Mo Money's owner Tom McKenna expressing the joys of ownership. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Folks in attendance embrace wearing Preakness colors of yellow and black, along with their favorite horse jewelry or accessories. There are cowboy hats sprinkled in the audience along with cowboy boots and belts. The official drink of the Preakness is the Black-Eyed Susan, and it’s a solid drink to accompany a huge breakfast. The connections of Always Dreaming talked about their Kentucky Derby winner and how kind and accommodating the staff is at Pimlico. Trainer Antonio Sano (Gunnevera) was fairly quiet and his son (who is also his assistant) handled the microphone. He said he was proud of his dad and his dad’s hard work. The media darling of the morning was Conquest Mo Money’s owner Tom McKenna who ponied up to the microphone like a natural. With a grin as wide as the Texas panhandle, he expounded on how horse racing could be improved with more owners and the crowd loved him! He reminisced that he used to go to the track with his grandfather. He didn’t remember the first time they went to the track, but he would never forget the first time he put him on a Quarter Horse in a race for senior jockeys. He was scared to death!

The souvenirs beckoned and the crowd started to disperse. It was time to wander the grounds and visit the stakes barns. The horses were snoozing as the temperature rose. A single Budweiser Clydesdale seemed appreciative as he was being bathed. On the track were the horses for the first race of the day.  The horses shined in the sunlight with sweat as they entered the paddock to be saddled. The temperature was rising.

Standing on the rail was a young man looking at the horses while studying his program. He seemed comfortable in the heat and looked at the horses with experience. He had his son with him. Jesse Fikes (29) and his son Michael (6) were visiting Pimlico for the first time from Arizona. Jesse works at Turf Paradise (and on the Arizona fair circuit) on the starting gate. Fikes also handles tattooing Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses back home.

I asked him what he thought of Pimlico. “My first impressions are like a dream come true. These three big races are bucket-list things. I felt like I kind of accomplished my bucket list even though today is not the Preakness Stakes. Just to come to this track; there is so much history on it, like the horses that stepped foot on it. I was actually nervous to speak to anybody. I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. And it’s amazing to have my son with me to be able to see this historic track. I come from a little town in Tucson, Arizona. I just ran into jockey Edgar Prado and got to take a picture with him. That was awesome as he is such a great rider.”

Fikes started working on the track when he was 13 years old at Rillito Downs in Tucson, Ariz. He was hanging out at the gate when starter Lee Petersen had him come over to help close the gates behind the horses. That was a life-changing moment. Horse racing is in his blood as his grandfather also worked at Turf Paradise and on the fair circuit. He was so excited when they arrived at Pimlico this morning that he couldn’t wait to jump out of their vehicle. He had been talking about visiting the track for at least three years. His Aunt Marty said that this has been a dream of his for a very long time. 

Jesse Fikes and Pimlico starter Bruce Wagner during the post parade. (Julie June Stewart photo)

As soon as he got to the track, he talked to the stewards and asked if he could get in touch with the starter. They connected him with Pimlico starter Bruce Wagner, who he quickly called and described his background and experience. Wagner told him he was more than welcome to come out to visit the gate crew and also was welcome to hang out all day if he wanted to. Fikes was on cloud nine. He took his aunt and his son to the gate. He ducked under the rail, shook hands with Wagner and stood next to him as the horses went by during the post parade. He shot some photographs as the gate crew loaded the horses in the gate. He said that there are some differences but everything is pretty much the same. “Every starter has their own way.” He was thrilled that he got to hang out on the track for four races.  Wagner was very friendly and said that it was great to meet him!

Fikes said that it was great to be out there to see their operation. He got to meet a lot of the guys on the gate crew and they treated him well. As his son played on a John Deere model underneath the grandstand, he couldn’t stop beaming. “It was great seeing the gate crew guys all happy. They are like brothers. And that’s what it like back home. It’s a brotherhood. We all work together. That’s the thing about working within the horse industry. You meet people and you always have the opportunity to move around. If you can do it; there is great opportunity to go out there. This industry just shows you the family that it has around it. There are open doors.”

Jesse Fikes and son Michael at the Pimlico starting gate. (Julie June Stewart photo)

As he looked over at his happy son playing he said, “This is like the Kentucky Derby to me. I am pretty sure he will get tired of me talking his head off. It’s just talking horse racing nonstop to him. Horse racing has matured me, and I’ve seen it already working on him.” 

It was only a scant two weeks ago when Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby for an ownership group that includes Anthony Bonomo and Vincent Viola. As they sat dazed in the Churchill Downs media room, they both talked about going to the track with their fathers when they were kids. Viola said it was also “magical being next to your dad, as he was really committed to the sport that he loved.”

It’s wonderful to see Fikes young son enjoying himself at the track with his dad. You can see a young man who is proud of his dad. It reminded me of the folks at the Alibi Breakfast who were fondly reminiscing about being at the track with their dads and granddads.

Many times, the most important race in life doesn’t happen on the biggest day of racing. Sometimes the biggest win comes on a quiet day at the track when a father and son can stand side by side and take in the sights. They may not remember which horse won the race but the memory of being together in the sunlight at the track will last a lifetime. And that is a winning combination. 

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