The Thursday before Preakness, warm rays of sunshine burn off remnants of fog still clinging to the historic track at Pimlico Race Course. With workouts finished and horses stabled, local and national media and the “connections” gather in the Hall of Fame Room overlooking Old Hilltop to celebrate a time-honored tradition with roots that date back more than 70 years.
A handsome jazz combo swings out melodies as guests fill tables topped with white and yellow linens and sunflower centerpieces. Journalists sip coffee and feverishly tap away at laptops, while owners and trainers shake hands and exchange laughs near the Woodlawn Vase.
For the Thoroughbred community, the Alibi Breakfast is a family reunion of sorts, steeped with one-liners, prognostications, and spun yarns. It’s an arena for jovial, good-natured toasting, roasting, and boasting where participants dine on fried chicken and knock back Black-Eyed Susan cocktails. No one seems to care that it’s 9:30 in the morning.
Last year, hall-of-fame trainer and five-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert told the audience, “It’s good to be back. It’s the only place where I eat chicken for breakfast.”
Legend has it that it all started with a cup of coffee.
In the late 1930s, trainers and owners met in the morning on the porch of the historic Pimlico Clubhouse to “swap information with other gentlemen…offering no alibis, but telling some of the best racing stories to ever reach print.”
The stories, however—the condition of the horse, jockey, track, even the trainer—were often a tapestry of half-truths and half-fiction.
Pimlico publicity director David Woods coined the name Alibi Breakfast in the 1940s and, in the decades that followed, the morning meeting became organized around the Preakness. What began with a handful of writers and horsemen has turned into an annual event that, today, draws upward of 800 invited guests.
“Pure Maryland,” is how veteran newspaper reporter and Pimlico historical consultant Joe Kelly describes the Alibi.
“It’s a very colorful gathering; it is the one time in horseracing where some pretty important trainers and owners get together [in one room].”
A cup of coffee has evolved into an elaborate spread which includes, among the many culinary delights, honey-glazed pit ham, scrambled eggs, redskin home-fried potatoes, Applewood-smoked bacon, fresh fruit, and pastries. The favorite, however, is the decadent fried chicken served on waffles drizzled with maple syrup and fruit topping.
The breakfast opens with an invocation by a member of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who offers prayers for safe travels around the track. It’s followed by an awards presentation, which includes the Special Award of Merit, presented to individuals who have made a positive impact on the racing industry.
The David F. Woods Memorial Award and Jerry Frutkoff Preakness Photography Award, sponsored by Nikon, are presented to the best Preakness story and photograph, respectively, from the previous year.
ESPN reporter and Cecil County resident Jeannine Edwards was honored with the 2009 Old Hilltop Award, a tribute to members of the media who have covered Thoroughbred racing with distinction; it was first awarded to legendary New York Times columnist Red Smith in 1976.
“The Hilltop represented about 15 years of the privilege of covering horseracing and being part of so many heartwarming, compelling, surprising, and sometimes tragic stories,” Edwards says.
“It represented an evolution of my skills and recognition of a sincere passion for the sport. I was so unbelievably humbled to be a part of the list of Hilltop winners, whose shoes I could never fill, nor would ever try, but who gave me an exemplary standard to shoot for.”
Another quirky Alibi charm is the naming of an honorary postmaster. In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service established a temporary station at Pimlico during Preakness week. Cigar, the 1995 Horse of Year, was the very first Preakness Postmaster.
With the awards presented, attention turns to the owners and trainers who hold court, offering predictions for the big race. None of these “characters” need a Black-Eyed Susan to liberate their tongues for storytelling.
While Old Hilltop has certainly seen its share of characters, for WBAL sports director Gerry Sandusky, the man who exemplified all that’s great about the Alibi was the late Jim McKay. The iconic broadcaster and founder of the Maryland Million had deep roots in Baltimore.
“If the only time you ever came across Jim McKay was at the Alibi Breakfast, you would have been so taken with his charm, his humility, and his friendliness—traits I’ve always associated with Baltimore,” Sandusky says.
“I think that’s really what that breakfast is all about. It gives people a real sense, a literal and metaphorical taste, of Baltimore and what the people in this town are really all about.”