The office smells like cigar smoke and horse. It’s not his cigar, though; the quality stogie belongs to a swell outside on a break from placing bets.
Gary Yamin doesn’t smoke. He sits behind a small desk with maps on the wall and maps in front of him and an icon of the Virgin Mary tacked to a bulletin board for prayers and luck. Yamin is Pimlico’s track detective, and he’s getting ready for the biggest, longest two days on the local racing calendar.
He’s a police vet, hitting the beat with the Baltimore Police Department for his 20 years, and a local. Parents are from Park Heights, the area he patrolled as a cop and his base at the track during the racing season.
“I coordinate positions with the police,” he says from behind the desk. “We look after the money coming in and out. Look out for drunks and the people who try to steal the alcohol. We investigate incidents and internal stuff that happens at the track.”
Yamin’s office is tiny. A dented brown file cabinet with a bar lock hides secrets, and photos of those banned for unknown offenses are tacked up on the far wall.
“Those are outdated,” Yamin points out, noticing that I’m going over the faded faces staring back from the board. “Our main job is…”
He pauses and leans back, and starts talking about the most important guest at the track. It has no legs, but is a real winner. The four-tier sparkling masterpiece in silver given to the winner of the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Woodlawn Vase.
The vase, according to Pimlico, became the official prize of the Preakness Stakes in 1917 after a brief time traveling to various tracks. It was first awarded in Kentucky to a mare named Mollie Jackson in 1861. Now, it’s valued at $1 million.
“We’re in charge of the trophy,” Yamin says with a little stoic pride. “We have to chart its route. Where it goes, we go. We escort it everywhere.”
And before you ask, no. No one’s been dumb enough to make a play for the Woodlawn.
“We haven’t had that yet,” he says. “Now let’s go meet the detective before me.”
We walk past the concession people stocking up and the souvenir vendors setting up to make their two-day nut.
When we finally reach the Jockey Club level, lunch is being swerved to a few dozen horse fans. And detective Bob Vinci keeps an eye on every single one of them. Vinci, who’s been a track dick since the first Bush was in office, is a burly barrel of a man with an impressive mustache, sideburns and the dapper fashion of an old school bull who sported wide ties and elbow-patched blazers.
His huge frame is the only thing between the preening and posing masses and the Woodlawn Vase. No one snapping pictures does anything to damage the trophy or tries to make off with it.
Vinci recalls the time he took it for a long ride about a decade ago.
“We had to take the vase to a silversmith,” Vinci says as groups take photos with her majesty. “In the middle of nowhere West Virginia. I’m not kidding. This guy, a silversmith, was way back in the hills. We take two cars when the vase travels in case one breaks down, which it did in this case, of course. This guy took it apart and gave it a really good clean. I don’t know why we had to take it so far.”
As the crowds swirl around the clubhouse, track and paddock on Saturday for the big race, both detectives will watch out for members of a profession around as long as humans have kept currency on their persons: the pickpocket.
“Pickpocketing is a dying art,” Vinci says, almost sad to see so many people keep their rolls. “Thirty years ago it was a big problem. You don’t see it as much anymore.”
Both Vinci and Yamin move their bodies to simulate a pair of pickpockets.
“They used to work in pairs,” Yamin says. “But yeah, it’s dropped off.”
Vinci pulls out his worn leather wallet, wrapped in a green rubber band.
“Wrap it like this,” he points out, “it’s harder for them to pull out.”
“Or keep it in your front pocket,” Yamin chimes in.
Back at the office, Yamin consults printed out color maps showing where the trophy’s escorts will be and the route from the saddling area to the winner’s circle.
“You can’t take photos,” he says, not looking up, “But here’s one of our main duties: getting the horses safely where they’re supposed to be.”
If the winds are correct, this might be one of the last years they escort anything anywhere at Pimlico Race Course.
“If it goes, I’ll miss our regulars,” he says, “everyone here is like family.”
“Take Tony,” he continues. “He’s elderly. I ask about his kids. And if I don’t see him for a few days, I know there’s been a health issue.”
Before I go, as Yamin finishes preparations for the grueling few days ahead of him, I have to ask if he’s had any success wagering.
“I’ve only really played the horses twice,” he answers. “We don’t gamble on duty.”
He talks about winning medium-big on two horses he chose for very specific reasons.
“Once I played a 15-to-one shot and won,” he says. “They guy with me was blown away. ‘Did you have any info on that horse?’ he asked me. Nope. The horse’s name was Tizz Tank, and my dog at the time was named Tank. That guy was blown away.
“The second horse I’ve won on was two years ago on Black-Eyed Susan Day: Keen Pauline. My wife’s name is Pauline. I don’t handicap or anything like that. Just a few times for fun.”
And what if the thunder of hooves goes quiet and the racetrack is no more?
“I’ll be absolutely sad to see this place go. Pimlico is a part of Baltimore history.”