The “tight turns” at Pimlico have been so thoroughly debunked by now that the horse racing world can agree that the only Tight Turn we ever saw at Pimlico was the Delaware-bred gelding by that name who raced on the Mid-Atlantic circuit back in the 1950s, and posted at least one recorded work over the course.
There are decades worth of articles debunking the idea of Pimlico’s turns being so tight (1988, 2002, 2015, to cite just a few), but I wondered where that trope came from in the first place. I have yet to unearth enough information to say something conclusive about the origin of the term, though a few whispers of origin story suggest it might trace back to the second half of the 1950s. A 1997 book, “Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing” by Richard Stone Reeves, dates it to Chick Lang’s jockey agent days, attributing to Lang a claim that Fabius, a horse his jockey Bill Hartack was riding, would benefit from the tight turns. Alternately, a 2002 Baltimore Sun article claims that Eddie Arcaro called the turns “tight” in 1957, though later regretted the wording as an inaccurate way of saying the track was narrower through the turns. Alas, without better sources of track scuttlebutt or jockey agent bluster, conclusively tracing the origin of the “tight turns” trope may be an exercise in futility.
But, one thing is for sure: the 1970s were the heyday of colourful references to Pimlico’s most enduring myth.
Arcaro may have regretted using the word “tight”, but perhaps the most lamentable usage related to Pimlico’s turns was made by Seth Hancock in 1974. Hancock owned Judger, eighth in the 1974 Kentucky Derby behind entrymate Cannonade. As recounted in a May 10, 1974 article syndicated by the Associated Press, Hancock stated:
Pimlico has too many tight turns and it has a short stretch. We won’t run him there, but we will point him for the Belmont.
I guess zero was too many.
At least once, a horse owner suggested that the turns at Pimlico would keep his horse out of the Preakness even if he won the Derby. Said Chuck Schmidt, co-owner of Kentucky Derby prospect Flag Officer, as quoted in a May 4, 1977 Chicago Tribune column by David Condon (account required):
Naturally, once you win the Derby there’s all sorts of pressure to get you to the Preakness. But I’d have to do lots of soul-searching before I’d agree to commit Flag Officer to the Preakness.
Flag Officer would have less chance in the Preakness than the other two Triple Crown events. It’s only a mile and 3-16s, and with those tight turns and short stretch at Pimlico our colt might be victimized by some cheap speed.
Anyhow, if you win the Kentucky Derby, you’ve really done the job.
We never got the chance to test the veracity of Schmidt’s claim that he’d bypass a Triple Crown bid. Flag Officer, the longest shot on the board at 46/1, finished 10th behind Seattle Slew in the 1977 Kentucky Derby. Of course, the malarkey about tight turns at Pimlico failed to dissuade Team Slew, and he went on to win the Triple Crown.
Where one Chicago-area owner let the “tight turns” give him pause, another used them as reason for bombast. Just before the 1976 Preakness, Chicago Tribune columnist David Condon checked in with Eugene Cashman, owner of Elocutionist (account required), and the Windy City commodities trader had no lack of confidence:
“Elocutionist could run in a bull ring,” Cashman said. “He’ll hug those turns like a hoop around a barrel. You’ve got to consider that Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure might go wide…and in that case it’ll be a very interesting race.”
People may have chuckled at his barrel analogy, but Cashman and friends had the last laugh. The race had been billed as almost a match race between Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure, but it was 10/1 shot Elocutionist who kicked home a three-and-a-half-length winner. Condon’s May 16, 1976 recap of the race, also for the Chicago Tribune (account required), hearkened back to Pimlico’s most enduring trope, though in a slightly less colorful manner than Cashman’s invocation:
The Elocutionist triumph was more impressive by the way the colt moved outside to grab the lead. Cashman, Lively, and trainer Paul Adwell figured the top contenders might drift wide on Pimlico’s tight turns and give Elocutionist the opportunity to shoot through on the rail.
Despite the fact that the turns at Pimlico are not significantly tighter than at other major racetracks, the “tight turns” descriptor continues to be bandied about. The best we can do is keep an eye out for its most fun appearances — and keep our fingers crossed that maybe, just maybe, Tight Turn was named because someone was already sick of the repetition over sixty years ago.