The die-hard racing fans stood with binoculars in their hands, following every step as horses jumped the fences and ran the course. Children galloped on the grass, holding toy horses mounted on sticks, pretending to be jockeys. Foodies nibbled smelly cheese and sipped wine, paying little attention to the Legacy Chase.
"You mean there's a horse race?" quipped Ellen Fish of Lutherville.
About 15,000 spectators dotted the perimeter of Shawan Downs in Hunt Valley yesterday to watch the seventh annual Legacy Chase. Proceeds from the steeplechase races went to Greater Baltimore Medical Center's nursing program.
The crowd was a mix of nurses, families and gourmands. Spectators brought blankets, lawn chairs and wicker picnic baskets.
Some were content with conventional picnic fare such as fried chicken and potato chips. Others were a little more adventuresome.
A group of five women sat in a semicircle, enjoying the sunny, picturesque Saturday with a spread of white wine, prosciutto, hummus, olives and Guinness cheese.
"And we're just beginning," said Wendy Hauck of Lutherville. "We coordinated dessert, appetizers, cheese - and we even brought three types of shrimp."
As the announcer's play-by-play blared in the background, Hauck, a casual fan, leafed through the race program and shrugged.
"We just pick the horse with the most interesting name," she said.
For four years, the Legacy Chase has been an annual tradition for the group.
"We have no kids here today," Sue Thomas of Bel Air declared. "It's a day for the women."
The steeplechase, which was expected to raise about $100,000 this year, is the largest fundraiser for nursing at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, said Theresa Law, GBMC's director of major gifts and grants.
Money raised through ticket sales, tent rentals and raffles will fund nursing scholarships, tuition reimbursements and other development programs for nurses, Law said.
"It's an effort to get more nurses and keep good nurses at GBMC," Law said.
A 2005 report issued by the Statewide Commission on the Crisis in Nursing predicted that Maryland will be more than 17,000 nurses short by 2012. Nationwide, a lack of nurses has prompted hospitals to recruit in English-speaking Caribbean and African countries, India and the Philippines to fill the need.
Darleen Atkinson, a registered nurse at GBMC who works in maternal child health, volunteered to sell raffle tickets at the event yesterday. More than 10 years ago, Atkinson had tuition assistance from her employer when she went to the College of Notre Dame to get her bachelor's degree in nursing.
"I wanted to volunteer because I've benefited a lot," Atkinson said after selling all her tickets.
Races at Shawan Downs are on a course about a mile and an eighth in length. Five races, with a combined purse of nearly $100,000, made up yesterday's Legacy Chase program. In the $25,000 Ski Roundtop Stakes, a New Zealand-bred gelding named Irish Prince rallied to win by little more than a length.
For younger fans, there were pony rides, a petting zoo with alpacas and a moon bounce. Vendors had attractions for adults with a display of vintage cars and merchants selling British tweeds, horse prints and saddles.
Marguerite Sonneborn of Lutherville admired the scenery from her lawn chair, holding a glass of red wine.
"It's a beautiful countryside, with family-tied activities and people bringing lunches and picnics here," she said. "That's the wonderful thing about Maryland and horse races."