Like many people who have a primary leisure time pursuit, at this time of year I take a secondary interest in another sporting venture: horse racing.
For me, though, horse racing has a particular and beneficial relationship with my first choice in recreational past times. Growing up in Reisterstown, I came to be something of an aficionado of the creeks and streams that rise from a geological formation known as the Cockeysville Marble Aquifer. The springs of the Gunpowder River drainage, especially those that join to form Big Gunpowder Falls, come from a place deep enough in the earth that the streams they generate stay relatively cold throughout the hot weeks of the Maryland summer. Plus they have a strong enough flow even during dry spells, that creeks don't run dry.
This geological characteristic makes the lands drained by the Gunpowder particularly good for pastures, and hence prime territory for raising horses. It's land with a similar look to classic English and Irish horse country, and not coincidentally, it is one of a relatively few places where the sport of fox hunting (more accurately described as fox chasing as in its modern incarnation foxes are generally not harmed in the endeavor) is pursued on a fairly regular basis.
Another sport associated with the countryside of the British Isles also is made possible by the strong springs of the Cockeysville Marble Aquifer, albeit on a small scale. The creeks of the Gunpowder watershed are home to a transplant European trout cousin of the Atlantic salmon. These trout, which are the focus of my main leisure-time pursuit, are among the beneficiaries of horse racing because a healthy horse farm is generally drained by a healthy trout stream.
So I was especially pleased on Kentucky Derby day when I drove to North East to place bets on two longshot horses, Oxbow and Palice Malice, and found the off-track betting parlor there thriving in style.
Flash back about 20 years, a relatively short time after off-track betting was enabled by action of the Maryland General Assembly. I'd been sitting in bail hearings in district court when a horse person came up on a minor count and asked for mercy from the court. It turned out she was absolutely passionate about making it to Pimlico to help get a horse ready for a race. This horse, she said, was a sure thing. I wrote down the name and, after work, headed to North East to place a bet on the thoroughbred.
The parlor in those days wasn't much to look at. Betting booths were set up on folding tables. The place had the look of a converted elementary school multi-purpose room, only a lot more run down and scented with a mix of stale and fresh cigar smoke. Betting was the sole attraction.
So unimpressive was the operation as an entertainment venue, I didn't return until the most recent derby to place bets on two horses, again on a tip from a more reliable source. As it turned out, neither the bail hearing horse nor the two tips I got from the derby gave me a payoff.
The thing is, though, after my most recent visit, I'd be inclined to return to the OTB parlor in North East, just for sport. The place is a far cry from what it was. The restaurant associated with it served what looked like pretty darn good food to the people who ordered it. The bar was fully stocked, not just the cheap beer tap of two decades ago. The decor was pretty nice, too. It has the look of a distance learning school, with desks facing a bank of TV screens. The desks, of course, are for those folks who take horse betting as seriously as I take fishing to figure the odds, while enjoying a beverage and possibly a decent meal.
All in all, it has the look of a place where betting money on horses and losing it – the only thing that ever happens to me when I bet on horses – could be fairly pleasurable. The races themselves are, after all, pretty exciting. A horse race is kind of like a game-winning play in a close football game that lasts two minutes. It's that much more exciting when you've got money on a horse.
For me, this is especially good news because I think it means horse racing in Maryland is a sport that has the potential to attract a more broad based casual following. Sure, it's always had its die hard followers who are passionate about handicapping and devoted readers of the Daily Racing Form, but football doesn't live and die by the fans who paint their faces in team colors. It is king because a lot of people have a casual interest in watching the home team in the company of friends.
If horse racing – even at an OTB parlor – can become an excuse for social activity even at a fraction of what football inspires, there's hope it will survive and thrive. This means horse farms also will survive and thrive, preserving the territories where riders and hounds chase foxes, and where clear cold waters are maintained as homes for aggressive and healthy trout.
Bring on the Preakness Stakes!