Gina Riley staked out a spot near the finish line long before the crowds arrived at the Timonium Fairground race track Sunday. She put a blanket on the ground, parked a cooler nearby and sat in the shade of the grandstand. She thought of her son, Bryce, who would have turned 34 Friday.
Riley and her husband, Todd Tracey, make this trip every year in honor of Bryce, who had spent his life fighting dermatomyositis, a rare muscle and tissue disease that prevented him from going on rides at the Maryland Fair. He learned to bet on the horses instead, and attended every year from the mid-1980s to his death after brain surgery in 1999.
"He couldn't lift his hands up to pet them," she said. "But it was like the horses knew. They always bent their heads lower just for him."
Riley and Tracey, along with nine friends and family members of all ages, eventually blended into the few thousand that gathered beside the track. That is unusual. Horse racing in Maryland — and elsewhere — has largely failed to capture a young audience or market itself as family friendly. But the short Timonium meet takes place during the fair, lending it a built-in audience of families.
Attending the races does not cost extra, and many families stopped in Sunday for one or two races on their way to rides. Fans can stand along the fence, up against the track, and have easy access to the paddock where the horses parade before racing.
"We hadn't really thought of horse racing as something to do," Riley said. "But once we came to the fair and saw it here, it made so much sense as something the family could do together. And you look around and that's what it is, families enjoying a day at the races."
But the Timonium meet — fondly referred to as "The Big T" by racing fans in the state — has been buffeted by the same forces affecting the sport as Maryland strives to use state-subsidized purses to become one of the premier racing jurisdictions in the country again. The Timonium meet was expanded to 10 days this year, after featuring only seven days in most recent years. The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association subsidized the extra days, hoping that the extended meet would give its members more chances to make money while serving as an advertisement to families like Riley's.
"It's just a long tradition in Maryland, something people remember doing as kids, and there's a special aura to racing here," said Gary Capuano, the long-time trainer.
Races on the small track — it's only 5/8 th of a mile — can be hard to fill, though. Many horses spent the summer running in nearby states and their trainers would prefer to rest them going into the more lucrative Laurel fall meet. Still others won't run at Timonium because their trainers or owners think they are not a good fit for the smaller track, which requires nimble sprinters. And while the Maryland breeding industry appears to be making a resurgence, racing secretary Georganne Hale said she is still several strong foal crops away from having a large enough horse population to draw from.
Chip Reed, a longtime owner in the state, has tried to enter horses in the meet but hasn't found a race that is a good fit, he said. The races offered at Timonium end up being suited for horses that have little chance to win elsewhere: The first three races Sunday featured 21 horses who'd combined for just six wins in more than 150 starts, almost entirely in low-level claiming races.
Slots money has increased purses from an average of $100,000 per day at Timonium to $150,000, but Hale is having trouble writing competitive races for higher level horses — the kind that bettors might pay attention to.
It also doesn't help that two tracks the meet would have generally drawn horses from, Charles Town and Penn National, have prevented their trainers from traveling to Timonium, Hale said. Both of those tracks are owned by Penn National and are attached to casinos that now face heavy competition from Maryland's growing gaming industry. Officials at those tracks could not be reached.
The Timonium meet does give smaller racing outfits in Maryland an opportunity to compete for the increased purses — that money was set aside to sustain the state's farms — and it also allows up-and-coming jockeys a chance to be noticed. Established riders often take these weeks off or race elsewhere.
"You look around the room and there are a lot of young guys trying to become something," said Travis Dunkelberger, a veteran of the Mid-Atlantic circuit. "The meet in general has a different feel, and it's a good start to the racing season here."