The Maryland State Fairgrounds at Timonium plays temporary host to nearly 600 horses in training this summer, and the community is welcoming the change.
As Laurel Park undergoes a full track resurfacing project, Maryland trainers can now use Timonium as a home base in addition to Pimlico Race Course, where the meet has been extended to make up for lost racing at Laurel.
The June congregation is far from status quo for “The Big T,” where a typical year of racing consists of 10 days in conjunction with the state fair from late August to early September.
For the first time since 1983 – when Timonium hosted a 40-day summer meet – barns are full, the track kitchen is open, and horses are training around the banked turns of north Baltimore’s hidden gem. The state fair itself dates to 1878 and moved to its current location the next year. Racing was part of the early days, and survived a variety of changes over the years including competition over racing dates, takeover efforts and the consolidation of racetracks. Today, Timonium’s Thoroughbred interest survives as the short meet during the state fair, Fasig-Tipton’s sales of yearlings, 2-year-olds, racehorses and breeding stock throughout the year and the Maryland Horse Breeders Association’s annual yearling show.
But a typical June doesn’t involve much in the way of regular horse activity. Until 2021 when the Maryland Jockey Club was forced to stop racing and close training to rebuild the track at Laurel. The moves filled the stable area at Pimlico, sent horses to Timonium again and captured the public’s attention.
On June 11, a crowd gathered under the grandstand for a history lesson from Mike Pons, owner of Country Life and Merryland farms and Maryland racing historian.
The free event invited anyone to learn about the history of the newly bustling track while watching horses train, attracting families from the area who braved the morning rainstorm.
Among the audience were Gerry Brewster, chairman of the board of directors of the Maryland State Fair, John Gasparini, Timonium’s track kitchen supervisor, and Don “Chief” Denmyer, Timonium’s director of facilities and operations.
Pons spoke about the state’s racing scene of the past, when five tracks, all a half-mile around, completed a circuit of race meets that kept fans busy year-round. Timonium is the only survivor of the quintet completed by Cumberland, Hagerstown, Bel Air and Marlboro. Maryland’s racing past also included racing at Havre de Grace and Bowie in addition to the still-operating Laurel and Pimlico.
Timonium was lengthened to five-eighths of a mile with the adjustment of York Road, the now five-lane road running along the backside, in 1974.
Pons discussed some of the quirks of racing at Timonium, all of which help make it a pleasant place to watch a day of racing.
“If you’re fortunate, you’ll make your move by the Ferris wheel,” Pons said of jockeys asking horses to accelerate while passing the temporary towering state-fair structure that overlooks the far turn. “It’s hard to close in this little stretch here,” he said, gesturing to a pair of horses galloping under the wire. Win pictures from Timonium are instantly recognizable on a wall, stamped with the unique midway backdrop.
Children less interested in Timonium history from long before they were born were rewarded for their early morning wake-up, with a meet and greet with two horses hanging their heads over the outside rail before a gallop.
After the presentation, audience members were given the chance to meet Hunter, the outrider’s horse who helped catch Bodexpress after he unseated his rider at the start of the 2019 Preakness Stakes.
“How else can you showcase your sport to so many different people like you can here?” Pons asked, pointing out that more than 500,000 people come to the Maryland State Fair every year.
When factoring in the numerous other events that take place on the grounds each year, the number swells to an estimated 2 million guests.
“I’m hoping that this is sort of a first big pole vault into the rebuild of Laurel,” Pons said later, in regard to what’s next for racing in Maryland. The massive plan calls for new facilities at Laurel and Pimlico – and a continued role for Timonium too.
“It’s like having a spare tire,” Pons said, about the unique fallback plan Timonium offered for racing in the state. “All these things were just sitting here, and when we needed them, they responded.”
One of the most critical elements to a racetrack kicks into gear every morning at Timonium with the track kitchen. Gasparini, a professor of psychology at the University of Baltimore, likens food service to his psychology background as a way to “help people along” within the racing community.
“You will hear everybody say we are one of the best track kitchens in the country,” he said. “We provide people with good food, and a lot of people here on the backside don’t get that.”
While acting as a spare tire for now, Timonium is far from finished in terms of development and new goings on. The grandstand, built in 1957, is undergoing changes every day. Denmyer had just finished sanding and painting a few boxes in the front row overlooking the track. A new press box and announcer’s stand completed a few years ago sit atop the building. The newly remodeled Nick’s Grandstand Grill and Crabhouse and the grandstand’s off-track betting center give the building a year-round purpose.
The infield is home to a dozen lacrosse fields that host youth tournaments, a use of space that drives even more traffic to the fairgrounds.
Brewster pointed out a few necessary functions for the space that kicked into action over the last year, with a pop-up food pantry serving 5,000 community members in need every Sunday throughout the hardest months of the pandemic and out beyond the far turn the coronavirus vaccination effort pushes on at Timonium too.
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They’re doing it again. If you missed the Pons talk and want to learn more, Timonium will host another public event Monday, June 28 (starts at 7:30 a.m.) with former jockey Bobby Lillis. He will teach about racing, galloping and more. The event is free and open to the public. Enter via the Timonium Road gate, park in the grandstand area, and walk in the slubhouse entrance. Rain or Shine.