When it comes to sports on Thanksgiving Day, football has long held a lease on America’s turkey-shaped heart.
Whether it’s a venerable high-school rivalry game such as Loyola-Calvert Hall or the annual early-afternoon kickoff for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, the sport is as familiar a side dish as stuffing or cranberry sauce.
There are other ways, however, for Marylanders to indulge their sporting appetites. Whether they gather by the thousands to run Turkey Trot races for charity, continue family legacies of watching the thoroughbreds at Laurel Park or squeeze in 18 holes at Baltimore’s municipal golf courses, plenty of people maintain Thanksgiving traditions that have nothing to do with pigskin.
Clark Shaffer will don a fine suit, a tie and a stylish hat on Thursday morning.
But when he leaves his Columbia home, he won’t be headed for a family dinner. Instead, he’ll drive to Laurel Park to catch the first race of the day at 11:25 a.m.
“It’s better than sitting at home, eating too much and watching football,” he said
His ties to horse racing go back to his great-grandfather, H. Guy Bedwell, who trained Sir Barton, the first winner of what would come to be known as the Triple Crown. Bedwell was an ornery cuss who proudly went by the nickname “Hard Guy.” Shaffer never knew him, but he inherited a love for the sport from his father, who had grown up around the Hall of Fame trainer.
So in a sense, when Shaffer goes to Laurel Park every Thanksgiving, he is reconnecting with his family.
“I do feel that,” he said. “It’s the way I grew up.”
The Thanksgiving races at Laurel are a longstanding tradition (one shared by tracks such as Churchill Downs, Del Mar and Aqueduct) for hardcore racing fans and Maryland horsemen.
If patrons want to consume Thanksgiving dinner while watching the 10-race card, they can pay $40 for a buffet with a turkey carving station, cornbread stuffing and three kinds of pie. For the thriftier set, the track offers a free pumpkin or apple pie from Stoltfuz Bakery with the purchase of a daily racing program, a tradition that goes back more than a quarter-century.
Maryland Jockey Club president Sal Sinatra said the pie giveaway draws families that would not come to the track on a typical weekday afternoon.
“Thanksgiving and Black Friday are big days for us,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association offers free Thanksgiving dinners to all backstretch workers and their families at both Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course.
Second-generation Maryland trainer Lacey Gaudet grew up going to the track on Thanksgiving with her parents and her sister, Gabby. She recalls her father, longtime trainer Eddie Gaudet, stringing together a long streak of winners on the holiday.
“That was definitely one of the reasons we didn’t cook a lot of turkeys at our house,” she said, laughing.
Her father also hoarded the free apple and pumpkin pies and disapproved when the track switched bakeries a few years back.
Then when Gaudet and her sister, who became an interviewer and announcer for the Maryland Jockey Club, rented a home together near the track, they hosted an annual Thanksgiving dinner after the day’s card.
“We’ve all given up so many holidays and birthdays because we wanted to do this,” Gaudet said. “But Thanksgiving has always been a time when we can still be together.”
Shaffer, 63, didn’t always go to the track on Thanksgiving. He began doing so seven or eight years ago at the suggestion of his friend, Matt Smoot, who owns horses and frequently runs them at Laurel Park.
Shaffer chuckled as he recalled walking toward the winner’s circle with Smoot on a recent Thanksgiving, only to watch another horse pass his friend’s entry in the last 200 yards.
“That’s the racing business,” he said. “But it’s really more of a social thing on Thanksgiving.”
Shaffer enjoys talking about his great-grandfather, who trained champions from his base in North Laurel, and his father, a Laurel postman who never worked with horses but loved to bet on them. His parents took him to the track for the first time when he was 6 or 7 years old. He bet a daily double and won $32.
“That made me the richest kid in Laurel!” he said.
While most of the rest of us are passing the mashed potatoes on Thursday, Shaffer will be trying to get lucky one more time.
-- Childs Walker
Before carving the bird Thursday, Paul McDaniel will try to make some birdies. Playing golf on Thanksgiving is a tradition for McDaniel, 74, of Timonium, who’ll tee off at 8:30 a.m. at Pine Ridge Golf Course — one of four public links celebrating Baltimore’s 22nd annual Turkey Shoot.
Mount Pleasant, Clifton Park and Forest Park will also participate in the outing, where duffers play a round in the morning, then head home for dinner. Each course features a shotgun start, meaning all golfers begin at the same time on one of 18 holes. Everyone is done by 1 p.m., leaving the rest of the day for family fare.
McDaniel has competed in the Turkey Shoot from the first. He rises early, grabs his clubs and leaves the house as his wife, Barbara, stuffs the turkey.
“What else would I do in the morning, just sit around and watch her cook?” McDaniel said. “The house smells good when I get home. She does a better job in the kitchen than I do on the golf course.”
The Turkey Shoot was the brainstorm of Jim Deck, head PGA professional at Pine Ridge. Years ago, while in Georgia to visit relatives, “I saw a golf course doing this and thought, ‘Man, that’s genius,’ ” Deck said. “We’d always been open on Thanksgiving, but with starting times all day, so we’d have to chase people off the course by 4 p.m. The shotgun start lets everyone [a maximum of 120 at each course] start together, so all have their afternoons free.”
The cost ranges from $40 to $60 at each site and includes a buffet breakfast. In addition, Carroll Park will host a FootGolf outing, where participants compete to kick soccer balls into king-size holes. Attendance is limited at each locale. To register, call the pro shop at a particular course or go online at www.Classic5Golf.com/2017-turkey-shoots/.
Moreover — at Pine Ridge, at least — golfers might see wild turkeys in the rough.
“I saw one, about a month ago, walking across the driveway as I drove up to the pro shop,” McDaniel said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Deck confirmed that turkeys have been sighted on the course.
“They may be ‘eyed up’ more closely now than at other times of the year,” he said.
-- Mike Klingaman
Tom Mooney graduated from Loyola Blakefield. So did his father, and so did his son. For the longest time in Mooney’s life, that meant observing a family tradition on Thanksgiving morning: football.
“Thanksgiving in our family was always at the Loyola-Calvert Hall game,” Mooney, 59, said, referring to the long-running Turkey Bowl. “Seventeen years ago, that changed for me.”
That was around when Mooney, having two young daughters, became involved with the Indian Princess Program at the Towson (Orokawa) YMCA. An official at the center asked Mooney whether he’d consider joining the Y in Central Maryland’s board of directors, and he said he would.
But there was one catch for the new guy.
“You're going to be the turkey on Thanksgiving in the Turkey Trot,” Mooney recalled being told. “You're going to put the costume on.” Again, he said OK. “I didn't know any better.”
Seventeen years later, much has changed about the Y Turkey Trot Charity 5K. Since its inception in Towson 23 years ago, the event has expanded to six other locations around the area (Arnold, Baltimore City, Bel Air, Ellicott City, Perry Hall and Westminster). YMCA officials expect over 15,000 participants — dogs included — Thursday, up from 13,000-plus in 2016 and approximately 200 in its inaugural year. Even Towson’s ever-present anthropomorphic turkey is different, moving from a pilgrim aesthetic to a bigger, puffier, more college-mascot-inspired look.
The only constant, it seems, is the man inside it.
“Seventeen years go by,” Mooney said, “I'm still the turkey.”
The Turkey Trot is expected to raise over $800,000 this year to support Maryland families living at or below the federal poverty line who cannot otherwise afford to participate in Y programs, said Sara Milstein, chief marketing and advancement officer for The Y in Central Maryland.
With over 3,200 participants last year, Towson’s Turkey Trot is still the most popular of the seven, and it doesn’t lack for fall color. Milstein said she’s seen just about all of the holiday’s pageantry embodied on the streets of West Towson and Southland Hills over the years, with runners dressed up as everything from turkeys and pilgrims to pumpkins and pies.
“There's something about getting out early on Thanksgiving morning, going into one of the neighborhoods where the race is run and seeing literally thousands of people stream out of their homes in this communal event,” Milstein said.
Mooney doesn’t actually complete the 5K — he normally goes out for a run later in the morning, sans costume — but he hasn’t been to a Loyola-Calvert Hall game in 17 years. The joy he feels as a part-time turkey doesn’t compare. You just can’t tell because, well, he’s got a furry costume head on.
“For me, it’s tradition now,” he said.
-- Jonas Shaffer