By Mike Schuh

BALTIMORE (WJZ)– Arlington Elementary is so close to the Pimlico Racecourse that Tuesday morning–175 kindergartners walked to the track.

Excited and chattering, they fell silent, eyes wide as they stepped up to pet Sharkey, a retired racehorse.

“He’s so soft!” remarked one 5-year-old.

After petting Sharkey, a boy ran over to a friend and ran his hand through his shiny black buzz cut and said his hair “felt just like the horses.”

Such are the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of a behind the scenes tour at Pimlico.

Every year during Preakness Week, the track offers first come, first served tours of what’s known as The Backside. It’s the area between the big TV trucks and the looming grandstand. A place where only the top horses stay in the Stakes Barns.

Last year, track employee Fran Burns says 2,701 people took the tour.

“I have people who come every year from out of state and foreign countries,” Burns said.

The tour is free and starts before dawn. If you go to the Rodgers Street entrance between 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., you’ll get put into a tour group which will see and smell the historic Old Hilltop up close. Be warned, you’ll do some walking and strollers are not allowed.

“I’ve had women show up in stiletto heels. It didn’t go so well for them,” Burns said.

Sensible shoes are needed as you’re walking on blacktop, crushed gravel, wet sand or a special thick mixture of mulch laid atop the asphalt to give the multi-million-dollar horses a padded walkway as they move from the barns to the track and back.

Mrs. Sufrain, a kindergarten teacher from Arlington Elementary, says the tour is wonderful.

“Some of these kids have never petted a horse and may never pet one again,” she said. “They didn’t know what was over here at Pimlico, they thought it was a circus.”

In some ways it is. One hundred and forty-three times the horse raising industry has raised its tents and welcomed the best 3-year-old horses in the country.

Some of what these kids saw Tuesday–they’ll remember the rest of their lives. Saturday, one lucky owner, trainer and jockey will also be a part of a memory they too will remember forever.

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