Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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At Preakness Time, a Pimlico Tale

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BALTIMORE – The best stories in sports are about horse racing or boxing. That’s because the best characters in sports are in the gym or on the racetrack. Guys with names like Slewfoot or Hard Times, Sweatpea or Destroyer. Their lives are the stuff of legend. Their legends have lives of their own. When a dog wanders into one of those lives, the stories don’t come any better.

The dog in this story is named Barney. His home is Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland, home of the Preakness. He is a small, black, smooth-coated fellow that belongs to a special breed known as a “racetrack dog.” You won’t find racetrack dogs listed in any fancy atlas of dog breeds. Thankfully, no one has deemed it necessary to say that a racetrack dog has be this color or that color only. This tall or that tall, but no taller.

Racetrack dogs can be any size, shape, or color they want. There are some things, however, that a racetrack dog has to be. People who know the breed will tell you that those things include: intelligent, independent, rugged, adept at catching rats, and able to stay out from underfoot, especially from under horses’ feet. Horses are not always known for watching where they walk, and they are apt to kick up their heels without warning.

Barney’s story begins, as many legends do, in a certain obscurity; and, as many legends are, it is best told in the present tense—even if some of the principals are no longer in the present tense themselves.

Nobody knows for sure when Barney turns up at Pimlico. Or how he comes to be there. The dates on the cross that mark his grave on a strip of grass across from E Barn read “1960-1974.” If you ask around a bit, you get the impression the first date is a guesstimate.

According to George Mohr, who trains horses sixty years at Pimlico, “Barney came to this track with trainer Jimmy Hechter. One day when Jimmy was getting ready to ship to another track, he put Barney in an empty stall so he’d be available when Jimmy got ready to load him on the van. Unfortunately Jimmy forgot the dog. Harry Jeffra, who was the stall man at the time, found Barney and started feeding him.”

Jeffra’s widow, Martha, recalls it differently.

“Barney wandered into the track when he was still a puppy, and Harry adopted him,” she says. “Harry’s office was right at the gate where you enter the stable area.” The stable area is what horse people also call the “backstretch” or the “backside.” It is a world unto itself. Barney makes it his world, and as far as anyone knows, he never sets foot off the backstretch.

No matter how he gets to Pimlico, Barney couldn’t have found a better person than Harry Jeffra to look after him. Born Ignacius Pasquali Guiffi, Harry is a boy from the Pimlico neighborhood who makes good. Although he wins only one out of twenty-eight fights as an amateur and, as he puts it, gets “thrown out of every gym in Baltimore,” he sticks to his gloves and turns pro. He wins the bantamweight championship of the world in 1937 at the age of twenty-three.

He loses the title and gains a few pounds, so he fights as a featherweight. He becomes world champion in that division in 1940. He keeps the title for a year and keeps boxing until 1947. By the time he retires, Harry has 120 fights. He wins ninety-three, loses twenty, and has seven draws. Eventually he is inducted into the Maryland Hall of Fame, and every year they present a boxing award named in his honor.

After he hangs up the gloves, Harry works for a while as a jockey’s agent, then he signs on as stall man at Pimlico. He describes himself as “an innkeeper for horses,” but his official title is “stable manager.” He assigns stalls to trainers when they arrive at the track, and he looks after all the nickel-and-dime details that keep any innkeeper hopping. Except Harry’s 900-and-some guests sleep on straw.

If Harry is an innkeeper for horses, Barney is the innkeeper’s assistant. His main responsibility at Pimlico is making the rounds with Harry.

“As part of our security system we had time clocks posted all around the track,” says Chic Lang, former publicity director at Pimlico. “After you visited each barn, you had to insert a card in the time clock for that barn and get the card punched to show you had been there. This was mainly done to prevent theft. There must have been twenty or more of those check points around the track.

“When it was time to make the rounds, Harry would say, ‘Let’s go,’ and he and Barney would start out. They had a little golf cart they could use, but most of the time they walked because it was easier, and Harry liked to walk and talk anyhow. Barney went the whole route with Harry, all the time, year after year.”

Not only does Barney accompany Harry when he makes the rounds, before long Barney is leading the way from clock to clock. The dog is all business.

“People working on the backstretch would stop and say hello to Barney,” says Lang, “but he didn’t want to be bothered while he was making his rounds. He’d just keep trotting.”

When Harry arrives at a barn, he checks to see that equipment-room doors are locked. Meanwhile, Barney looks for infractions of the fire code. People working on the backstretch are not allowed to have hot plates or to do any cooking in the barns. If Barney smells something cooking or being smoked behind a closed door, he lets Harry know by sniffing at the door. Barney is also on the alert for cigarettes that have been tossed away. Cocky Johnson, present stall manager at Pimlico, remembers that Barney “would put cigarettes out. If he saw a cigarette lying on the ground, he’d stomp it with his paw.”

Barney learns the inspection route so well that some people say he can make the rounds by himself. In fact, he can. Whenever Harry hires a new security guard to check on the stables at night, the guard is a sure bet to ask who’s going to show him the route.

“Barney will,” says Harry.

“I haven’t met Barney yet,” says the new guy.

“He’s laying right over there by the door,” says Harry. At which point the guy generally looks at Harry as if his transmission’s slipping, but sure enough, at a word from Harry, Barney sets off. The new guard, positive he’s being set up, follows. He comes back a believer. Barney takes him to every barn without missing a clock.

Barney’s talents are not strictly managerial. In addition to training the new guards he also provides comic relief on the backstretch.

“Whenever Harry had to go to Chic Lang’s office,” says Martha Jeffra, “he took Barney with him. Harry would pat Chic’s desk, and Barney would jump up there. Then Harry would give Barney a signal, and Barney would throw his head back and howl.”

Barney is a great one for jumping on desks and singing. Indeed, Harry claims that Barney even knows the words to certain songs. Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” is one of them, especially the “meaner than a junkyard dog” part. Harry is never able to convince many people of this, but it’s not for lack of trying.

So great is Barney’s love for singing that every day when the Pimlico Fire Department siren goes off at 1 p.m. he jumps onto Harry’s desk and sings high harmony until the siren stops wailing. It doesn’t matter where Barney might be at the time, he comes running to the little toll booth at the stable gate where Harry is stationed, jumps through the window, leaps onto the desk, and lets it rip.

Barney saves his finest performances for the holidays, however.

“Every now and then, particularly around Christmas time, Harry would play some kind of music over the public address system,” says Lang. “He’d set the radio in front of the PA mike and turn the mike on. Everybody on the backstretch would laugh and get a kick out of it. Sometimes in the middle of a song Harry would go, ‘Buh, buh, buh, BUMP, bump, BUMP.’ And Barney would go, “Aaarrooooooo, roooooo, roooooooo.’ Somebody would always call me on the phone laughing like hell, saying, ‘You’d better go look at Harry. He’s been in the sauce again.’

“Of course, Harry had had a few. Around Christmas time somebody would drop off a little jug for him or something.”

There’s another reason the best stories in sports are about boxing and racing: people around the gym or on the track are not opposed to helping a story along. In addition to claiming that Barney knows the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Harry also tells people about the time there is a dog left behind by a trainer and Barney takes part of his dinner to the stall where the dog is left. Then Barney jumps into the stall to share his dinner with the dog. This is one of many stories Harry likes to tell about Barney.

“If you listened to some of those stories,” says George Mohr, “you’d think Barney was the smartest dog that ever lived.”

The trouble with living legends is they don’t live forever. Fourteen years after he meets Harry Jeffra, Barney is overtaken by old age, like a tired runner who gets caught in the stretch.

“I don’t remember that Barney was particularly sick with anything,” says Lang. “He was just an old dog. A beautiful old dog.”

After Barney is put to sleep by one of the track veterinarians, Chic and Harry and a few track officials gather to discuss where to bury him. Somebody suggests the track’s infield, a place of honor usually reserved for the most valiant runners. Harry is having none of it.

“The backstretch was his home,” says Harry. “That’s where he lived, and that’s where he’d like to be buried.”

Nobody argues with Harry about it.

“Harry and that dog were like ‘Me and My Shadow,'” says Lang. “Harry never even liked it when anybody referred to Barney as a dog. ‘He’s really people,’ Harry would say. ‘We have a special relationship. That’s my best friend. He never questions anything I do. And he’s loyal.'”

Four years after Barney is buried in 1974, Harry Jeffra makes his last rounds at Pimlico. The walk must seem long without his dog, and getting to work must lose some of its spark without Barney there to greet him in the morning. What’s more, with Harry’s heart problems and the quintuple by-pass he undergoes, his race track days are through. He dies in 1987 after losing his final bout, this time with Alzheimer’s.

The racetrack has changed a lot since Harry and Barney held sway. Competition from other forms of wagering has put hobbles on the game. Some people even say the sport of kings is dying. Dogs are not allowed on the backstretch at Pimlico any more. They got to be too much of a nuisance.

Sure, there’s no turning back time. That train only runs in one direction, and your ticket gets punched whether you like it or not. Yet after you’ve heard the stories about Barney, even from a distance of twenty-plus years, you can’t help but think this tired old racetrack we call life was a hell of a sight friendlier in those days. That was a mellower time—a time when the man they called Champ would holler to his little black dog over the PA system, and the little black dog would come flying to the stable gate as though his life depended on it.

“Everyone always thought that was amazing,” says Martha Jeffra.

No doubt it was. I sure as hell wish I had been there to see it.    

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