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Ernie and Pride take all comers


Entrants touting names like "Big Daddy," "Congo" and "Air Jordan" from Monkton to Glen Burnie rallied at Broadway Market Square in Fells Point yesterday for the 25th annual Maryland Preakness Celebration Frog Hop.

But it was an amphibian named "Ernie" that leaped to first place among a field of 39 frogs.

The prized possession of 15-year-old Tim Thate of Parkville, Ernie jumped 9 feet, 1 inch, outdistancing his nearest contender by only two inches. As the Frog Hop winner, Ernie will fly on to Calaveras County, Calif., tonight -- by jet and without his owner -- for the national frog-jumping jubilee there this weekend.

"I'm really surprised," said the slightly stunned Tim as he posed for photos and accepted a trophy. "I just found him two days ago" in a pond near the Susquehanna River, "and now I'm saying goodbye," he said.

The frog leap was one of several Preakness Week contests designed to get folks into the competitive spirit by this weekend, when the horse race all this fuss was created for gets under way at Pimlico. Earlier in the day about 100 preschoolers mounted hobbyhorses in the Pee-Wee Preakness at Rash Field, and yesterday afternoon it was the adults' turn to compete as three topsail ships cast off from the Inner Harbor in the AT&T; Great Schooner Race.

There were several winners in the hobbyhorse stakes, since the race had to be held about a dozen times to accommodate all the entrants. The young riders, who ranged in age from 3 to 5 and represented area day care and recreation centers, were vying for coloring books and posters.

As they galloped from one end of Rash Field to the other, the children were cheered on by spectators, and Dave Rodman, official track announcer at Pimlico, called the Pee-Wee stakes just as he would any horse race.

Not all the Preakness-happy preschoolers were on hobbyhorses. There were a few at the frog race, encouraging their entrants with everything from foot stomping to clapping.

Young Kyle Hoge, 3 1/2 , tried batting about a balloon to inspire his frog to jump -- but it was no go.

It wasn't until the whole audience yelled "Froggy" in unison that the frog leaped 4 feet, 7 inches -- a respectable showing, but not enough to place.

Frog jumping rules say you can do anything to encourage your amphibian but touch it. Some frog jockeys found blowing on their entrants worked. Others tried whistling. Still others dipped the frogs in water and watched them practically jump from their hands.

If one thing proved true it was that the biggest wasn't necessarily the best jumper. And names don't mean much, either: Sir Tiny jumped almost 8 feet, but big bad Ralph wouldn't budge. Air Jordan only went 4 feet.

After the frog hop ended, the festivities continued at the Inner Harbor where the Clipper City, Lady Maryland and Pride of Baltimore set sail in a race to Fort McHenry and back.

To no one's surprise, the Pride won, just nosing out the Lady Maryland.

That didn't bother the Clipper City, which had the most revelers on board. "We always win the party," said Barbara Shaw, the passenger ship's marketing manager.

"After all, the party is the most important thing for a party ship," she said of the schooner that offers entertainment tours to up to 150 passengers.

"We won once or twice in the past," she said of the race that for six years has been a Preakness tradition. "In fact, we've been cheating back and forth with the Pride for years: They tied our sails up this year.

"But someone probably found a bucket of rocks tied to their ship, too. This is really a spirited race."

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