Donnie Rideoutt, 68, has spent his life around racetracks, and is skeptical about planned renovations at Pimlico. Credit: Jim Burger

When Donnie Rideoutt was 12 years old, he stood in the winner’s circle at Pimlico with his Dad and a horse owned by his step-mother. It was late November, 1964 and the triumphant steed was KI-D-KA, named for Rideoutt and his sisters: Kym-Donnie-Kathy.

“I didn’t get into this business because I wanted to,” said Rideoutt, 68, feeding a carrot to a bay filly named Ask Nicely last month at Pimlico. “I got into it because my father owned horses. He came up with horses and I came up behind him. There wasn’t a choice about it.”

Donnie has been around racetracks all his life and began doing stable chores when Eisenhower graciously stepped aside for Kennedy. He’s still at it, doing whatever needs to be done at tracks around the state.

“I can’t retire, I need the money” said Rideoutt, a hot-walker, feeder, and jack-of-many equestrian trades. “The easiest part of racing is buying a horse. The hardest part is taking care of it. You can’t miss no days.”

The Pimlico neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore from which the track takes its name is said to honor (one of several suppositions) a late 17th-century London tavern famous for nut-brown ale. The Sport of Kings was formally established in colonial Maryland with the founding of the Maryland Jockey Club in Annapolis in 1743. Racing doesn’t harken back quite that far in Donnie’s lineage, but it goes back quite a ways on both sides of his family.

His father — Woodruff S. Awkard, who plied the trade with his wife Sarah T. Awkard — ran many horses, including a thoroughbred named Mr. Awkard that in 1981 triggered a $12,753 trifecta when it beat the field in the ninth race at Laurel Park.

His stepfather — Eugene O. Smith, a Charles Town trainer, breeder and owner —  earned a career $1,013,874 in winnings according to the Equibase website. Donnie’s mother — Shirley Rideoutt Gee, 86, with whom he lives on Hayward Avenue, a half-mile from Pimlico — is the surviving sister of Sylvia Rideoutt Bishop, who in 1954 became the first Black female to be licensed as a trainer in the United States.

The Rideoutts (“people get lazy and forget to put that second ‘t’ at the end,” said Donnie) hail from Charles Town, West Virginia, home of Charles Town Race Track, established in 1933.

“I could run horses at Charles Town when I was a teenager because everybody knew me,” said Donnie, who also frequented Shenandoah Downs, within walking distance of Charles Town before it closed after the 1975 season.

His Aunt Sylvia, who died in 2004, worked half-mile tracks and fairgrounds throughout the Free State and was still practicing the trade at 80. Bishop is the subject of a new biography — A Way With Horses — by author Vicky Moon, and, said Donnie, “is the most famous person in our family.”

Coming in second in the kith-and-kin sweepstakes is jockey Raymond “Skeets” Holland, who married one of Shirley’s other sisters, Clara H. Rideoutt. There were 17 Rideoutt siblings born in West Virginia and Donnie’s mother is the sole survivor. Skeets, a local favorite, rode his first race at the Timonium Fairgrounds in 1928. He died in 1993 at age 83.

In Donnie’s home hangs a photo finish of Ki-D-KA crossing the finish line in the third race at Pimlico — weather clear/track fast — and the Rideoutt/Awkard family in the winner’s circle. The next day’s chart read: Ki-D-Ka moved swiftly into the stretch to reach striking distance, wore down Down Again and drew clear… “

Amidst serious concern for the future of Pimlico’s mile-long dirt oval (unchanged since 1870), the photograph reminds Donnie of Old Hilltop’s glory days.

Donnie Rideoutt at age 12 stands in the winner’s circle at Pimlico with other family members.
Donnie Rideoutt at age 12 stands in the winner’s circle at Pimlico with other family members.

The Pimlico physical plant has been allowed to deteriorate for decades (buckets catch rainwater in the clubhouse) with blame enough to go around, from owners past and present to politicians (dead and alive, both sides of the aisle) in Annapolis and Baltimore and the Maryland Racing Commission.

“This track right here, Pimlico, is the real breadwinner,” said Donnie, his view distorted, perhaps, by love. “People say it’s a dump, well Laurel [Park] sits on swamp land. That’s the dump.”

The city of Laurel resides on the banks of the Patuxent River. Whether or not that qualifies as swamp land is a conversation for geologists. Donnie, like many others, is angry that the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Laurel, has chosen to invest in Laurel at the expense of a beleaguered Pimlico.

Old Hilltop is a landmark of the Monumental City not quite on par with Fort McHenry but not far behind. Stronach is believed to be the first owner of Pimlico with no roots in Maryland.

Pimlico is terrible for the average racing fan, as many bettors and aficionados have long known. And, as most Baltimoreans are aware, whenever an out-of-town corporation buys a local institution it goes to hell.

The Baltimore Colts and the Baltimore Sun come to mind.

A complicated 2019 deal between Stronach, the City of Baltimore and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association will keep Triple Crown’s second jewel — the fabled Preakness — at Pimlico.

The deal, which includes benefits (and another round of promises) to the surrounding Park Heights neighborhood, came after alarms sounded about moving the Preakness to Laurel. Stronach will give the 110-acre Pimlico footprint to the City and, as widely reported, receive some $155 million in state funds to improve Laurel, the company’s darling.

On the Pimlico grounds, all existing buildings will be razed, a smaller clubhouse will be built and the new “complex” of athletic fields and stages will be used for sporting and entertainment events year round.

A sticking point for traditionalists (who hold as much sway with government and big business as those who decried the demolition of Memorial Stadium in 2002) is the plan to “reconfigure” the track itself. The result will be an oval less than a mile from start to finish.

“Changing it from a mile to ⅞ of a mile is the worst thing you can do — why wreck it?” said Donnie. “Who the hell wants a smaller track for Preakness? Nobody.”

Certainly not April Inloes Smith. The Ruxton resident is an urban ranger for the Baltimore National Heritage Area, once gave sunrise tours of Pimlico during Preakness week and is a booster of the track with the passion that Wild Bill Hagy once had for the Baltimore Orioles.

Of the plans to remake Pimlico, she said, “They’re going to build a playground and call it Pimlico.”

Rafael Alvarez was awarded a 2021 “Living History Honor” by the Baltimore Historical Society for his body of work about his hometown. He can be reached via orlo.leini@gmail.com

Note: This story has been updated from its original version to correct errors in the status of members of the Rideoutt and Awkard families.

4 replies on “Hi Ho Pimlico”

  1. “Pave paradise, put up a parking lot” When I first applied for a job at The Baltimore National Heritage Area, I was asked what was the best thing about Baltimore. I said, The friendliness of the people. ” What’s the worst? ‘”It.s inferiority complex.” Whenever some out of town (state or country) concern comes in, we sit back and let them destroy whatever they want. The Stronach Group only bought Pimlico when they thought that Slots would be there. So enamored with the supposed proximity to DC, they have taken all the money made on the Preakness and given it to Laurel. As Mr. Rideoutt said, that is the real dump, as evidenced by its seriously environmentally flawed track. WE need to start treasuring what we have and what makes Baltimore unique!

  2. Who in the world gave anyone the right to trash Pimlico. Why don’t you ask the horsemen about Pimlico? And when something else happens at Laurel and it will where will you run. There are to many horses to train and run on the track at Laurel. Please ask the horsemen stabled at Pimlico.

  3. RUN THE PREAKNESS (A TRIPLE CROWN RACE – BY THE WAY) ON A 7 FURLONG TRACK – NO WAY.
    THE TRACK IS FINE —–> MAN O’ WAR AND SECRETARIAT LIKED IT <—– LEAVE IT – MAINTAIN IT.
    PIMLICO IS RUNNING NOW BECAUSE THERE IS TROUBLE WITH THE TRACK AT LAUREL
    BECAUSE THERE WILL ALWAYS BE TROUBLE AT LAUREL – THE WHOLE PLACE IS BUILT ON A SWAMP.
    PIMLICO AND THE PREAKNESS HAVE CARRIED MARYLAND RACING FOREVER.
    PIMLICO IS THE 2ND OLDEST TRACK IN THE USA THAT SHOULD MEAN SOMETHING.
    BALTIMORE NEEDS A BIG EVENT – PIMLICO AND THE PREAKNESS ARE THAT EVENT.
    – THERE ARE AND WILL BE ONLY 3 TRIPLE CROWN RACES.

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