Surrounded by Ferris wheels and roller coasters, the racetrack at Timonium Fairgrounds resembles a carousel with live horses. It's a tiny oval with hairpin turns - a thrill for some jockeys, a not-so-merry-go-round for others.
At five-eighths of a mile, Timonium is barely half the size of Pimlico Race Course. Thoroughbreds race here just seven days a year on weekends during the Maryland State Fair, which ends tomorrow. But that's long enough to give the track a feel all its own.For instance, the 100-foot Ferris wheel spinning near the far turn has scared more than one equine.
"Sometimes, horses will look at [the wheel] and approach it a little shyly in the middle of the turn," said jockey Jonathan Joyce, 22. "You have to smooch [make kissing sounds] to keep them moving forward."
Because the track is so short - jockeys call it a bullring - horses may have to circle it more than once in a race. Some animals find that confusing.
"I've had horses come down the stretch for the first time and pull up like the race is over," said jockey Charles Forrest, 41. "Then they realize they have to go around again.
"Some of them do resent it."
Having ridden at Timonium for 19 years, Forrest appreciates the idiosyncrasies of the place: the family atmosphere, the proximity of the fans, the sweet smell of funnel cakes that wafts over from the midway.
"It makes you hungry, though, and we [jockeys] can't eat," he said. "That's not good."
Those who ride here embrace the track's distinct features, including the sharp, crisp turns and the closeness of the crowd.
"I wish Timonium were open 40 days," said Travis Dunkelberger, 30. He has been a fixture here since 2000, when he once won seven times on a nine-race card.
"Things happen so much quicker here that this is more of a thinking track," Dunkelberger said. "You can steal more races because it's more about rider than horse."
To jockey Alberto Delgado, 42, Timonium is the Arena Football League of horse racing. In such cramped quarters, he said, every move you make is exaggerated.
Like all Maryland tracks, Timonium is in a bind. The average daily purse is just $107,000 (about $11,000 a race), said Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary Georganne Hale, compared with $170,000 at Laurel Park and $190,000 at Pimlico.
But the abbreviated Timonium meet can be a springboard for smaller stables, cheap horses and fearless riders.
"The turns are so-o-o-o tight," said Joyce, whose 17 wins here last year led the field. "You know those road signs that say, 'Slow to 25 [mph] on the off ramp?' If you try to cheat on these turns, you blow the rail and wind up on the [outside] fence."
Several years ago, said Hale, a parade of six Budweiser Clydesdales ended badly. When the animals attempted to turn on the cozy track, they trampled the outside rail.
If the setting is unlike that of normal racing, so are the bettors.
"It's a different clientele - more relaxed and refined," Charlie Carnaggio said. A teller at Maryland tracks for 40 years, he said he has to explain an exacta to some race-goers.
"Kids come to the betting window] with their parents and say, 'I want the gray horse,' " Carnaggio said. "It may be a 90-to-1 shot, but sometimes that horse does come in because horses don't read the odds."
Friday found Timonium's Lisa O'Donovan and her kids perusing the entries in search of a winner.
"Their grandfather owned racehorses," O'Donovan said of her sons, Jenks, 9, and Henry, 8. "Bringing them here is something I can do to help them realize their family's past."
Each of them picked a horse in the first race. When a horse named Westbrook crossed the finish line first, Jenks whooped, beamed and whooped again.
"You won! Way to go!" said his mother.
"And, Henry, your horse finished second.
"Mommy didn't win anything."