Maryland State Fair tries to attract younger horse racing fans

As Elizabeth Moorman sat in the grandstand overlooking the horse races at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, her odds of winning big were very, very good.

Moorman, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland, was among about 70 college students in attendance who had registered for a chance at one of nine $1,000 scholarships, and her name was drawn as a winner after the day’s second race.

The raffle was part of the first “College Day at the Races” event at the state fair, an effort to draw younger fans to a sport whose crowds continue to skew decidedly older.

“We have a problem in our industry — we need more young people in it,” said Bill Reightler, director of racing for the Maryland State Fair.

Reightler conceived the event after watching the success of a racetrack in Kentucky that attracts more than 2,500 young people to a spring race day. The Maryland State Fair already draws a half-million visitors annually for its rides, carnival games and food. “It’s ‘How do we get them from there to here?’ ” Reightler said.

Most of those perched in the grandstands were indeed gray-haired — older men taking notes in their programs and cheering on their race picks. But there were also many families with children, enjoying the track’s setup that allows spectators to get close to the action.

“I just love the horses, the running, all the work it takes to train them and get them here,” said Moorman, who is hoping to get into the horse racing industry. “There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes, and it all comes down to this.”

College students who attended Saturday appeared to be already connected to horse racing or equestrian hobbies. A group of nearly a dozen young women from the Goucher College Equestrian Team checked in at the registration table, then had their picture taken. Courtney Sloan, a 20-year-old from Fairfax, Va., said members of the team had attended a similar event last year at Laurel Park.

“I think contacting the colleges is a really good idea,” Sloan said.

On the concourse, Kimmi Doran paced back and forth, holding a cellphone to her ear and occasionally flipping through the program. She was on the phone with her 4-H mentor, asking for betting recommendations.

“He said, ‘Look at the trainers, then look at the odds,’” Doran said. She placed two $5 bets, one on a favorite to win and another on a long shot.

The fair is a “huge day” for Doran — though she is now a junior at Kansas State University, she returns for the fair to show cattle. While she enjoys horse racing, Doran doesn’t often find herself drawn to attend races in person.

“I think it’s awesome and it’s cool, but it’s not a close enough drive for me,” she said.

Devon Dougherty, 20, a junior at LaSalle University, said she heard about the event through a post on the Maryland Horse Breeders Association’s Instagram page. Not a stranger to race tracks — she said she works at Parx Racing in eastern Pennsylvania — she said the fairground track’s concourse was “old school.”

“I like it,” she said.

Reightler, the racing director, is now 64, and said his own interest in horse racing began as a child when his father accepted a pony as payment for a roofing repair job. At the time, they lived on an acre of land in Woodlawn, and neighbors complained about the new pet. They eventually moved to a 20-acre farm in Westminster, and he swept barns and filled water buckets.

“We don’t have the young people with a connection to the horse. That’s what we’re trying to re-establish,” Reightler said, noting that Maryland has more horses per square mile than any other state in the country.

Gerry Brewster, chairman of the board of the Maryland State Fair, said organizers are trying to find additional ways to attract younger fans. He said in recent years they started holding pony races, and he has held discussions to bring a contingent of amateur jockeys from Europe here.

“We’re taking all these little interesting steps that haven’t been taken before, to get more people involved,” he said. “It’s really hard to get kids to be interested, and it’s going to take making it interesting for them to come here.”

“If they get the bug at an early age, hopefully they’ll take an interest in horses and horse racing and agriculture, which is still Maryland’s No. 1 industry,” he said.

Moorman, one of the scholarship winners, said she always loved horses, but found a passion for horse racing around 2007 while watching the Preakness Stakes. “I’ve watched it every year,” she said.

Her father, Steve, said he was not into horse racing until his daughter became a fan, and their family has since traveled to racetracks in various states.

While his daughter took home $1,000, he bet $2 on a horse that finished third, good for about $5 of his own.

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