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Off to the races

Nothing beats a day at the track for Charlestown racehorse owner

Created date

May 3rd, 2017
Charlestown resident Gene Gilhooly (left) with American horse trainer and U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Wayne Lukas.

Charlestown resident Gene Gilhooly (left) with American horse trainer and U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Wayne Lukas.

On Saturday, May 20, thousands of people gathered at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg in American thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown series. It’s a safe bet that Charlestown resident Gene Gilhooly will be among them. 

“There’s nothing like watching live horse racing,” says Gene, an avid horse racing enthusiast. “It’s exciting. You never know what’s going to happen.” 

Proven track record

As Maryland’s largest sporting event, the Preakness drew a record crowd of 135,256 with a handle of $94.1 million and a $1.5 million purse in 2016.

The state has seen a revival in horse racing since 2008 when voters approved the installation of 15,000 slot machines at five locations throughout the state. The Maryland Slots Machine Amendment set aside proceeds for improving racetrack facilities and boosting Maryland racing purses, making the winnings more competitive with neighboring states. In 2016, horse racing received 5% of casino revenues totaling $57,061,944. 

A study released by the Sage Policy Group shows Maryland’s horse industry supports about $1.15 billion in economic activity in Maryland, up from $930 million in 2010.  According to the report, by 2020 it projects a $1.5 billion yearly economic impact supporting more than 11,000 jobs.

“Horse racing is a gigantic industry that most people don’t know much about,” says Gene. “In Maryland, the racing is good right now. Slot machines and casinos have helped keep racing alive.”  

In business

A retired elementary school principal, Gene bought his first racehorse in 1984. 

“One night, my wife and I were driving down Route 50 to a Howard Johnson’s for a fish fry, and I said to her, ‘Some day I’d really like to own a horse,’” says Gene. “I thought she would open the door while we were driving and throw me out. But instead, she said, ‘As much as you like horses and racing, I don’t know why you haven’t already done that.’ I was so surprised at her response I almost jumped out of the car! 

“After dinner, I went home and called a guy who I thought might be interested in being my partner, and Monday I called a trainer. The next thing I knew we were in business.”

For the last 33 years, 14 of which he has spent at Charlestown, Gene has operated Schoolyard Stables where he buys, sells, and races horses in claiming races. Unlike stakes races, which feature the top thoroughbreds in the country, the horses that compete in claiming races can be bought for a claiming price up until post time. About half of all races run in North America are claiming races.  

“Over the years, I’ve probably had about 50, 60, or 70 horses,” says Gene. “Usually I only own one horse at a time. The hard thing about claiming races is if your horse does well they usually get claimed, and you lose them and have to start all over again.” 

Gene spends most weekends at one of three Maryland race tracks: Pimlico Race Course, Laurel Park, or Timonium Race Track. 

Occasionally he gives his Charlestown neighbors a lift to the track in his red Ford Mustang and in the past has even bought pizza for the entire floor in his apartment building with his winnings.  Last December, Gene claimed a horse named “Hey Willie,” which so far, he says, has been a disappointment. 

“He sustained an injury,” says Gene. “He came down hard on his hoof and cracked it down to the quick, and it is going to take time to heal. Horses are like humans; they get injured and sick. Years ago, I claimed a horse and we ran him and won. After the race, I had someone in New York who wanted to buy my horse for four times what I paid for him. I said, ‘You know, you don’t get a good horse very often; I think I’ll pass.’ Three months later the horse was dead. At the track we have a saying, ‘Horse racing is not a sport for boys with short pants,’ which basically means you’ve got to be willing to take a risk.”

Inside track

Legendary racehorse Secretariat holds the record for running the fastest time of the Preakness Stakes at 1:53. Secretariat, however, wasn’t officially named the record-holder until 2012 when the Maryland Racing Commission reviewed a videotape of the race and decided Secretariat’s original winning time of 1:55 was incorrect.