Fun back on track at Timonium meet

JOHN EISENBERG

September 01, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

The racing meet at Timonium is about a tough-luck kid named Timmy Marchant, two years removed from a pair of career-killing car accidents, finally getting another chance to ride in the afternoons.

The racing meet at Timonium is about a used-car dealer with the fabulous name of Billy Sweat bringing his big horse, with the fabulous name of El Bourbon, up from South Carolina for a run at a $3,800 purse.

The racing meet at Timonium is about a hard-knocking horse named Our Weapon starting a charge by the Ferris wheel and coming around to break his maiden at last -- in his 14th start.

The racing meet at Timonium is 10 days in the sun and dust of the state fair, a cinderblock grandstand dolled up with bunting, an old wooden paddock, the horses so close you can hear the jockeys' whips beating their hard tattoos down the stretch.

It has few of the normal attachments of major-league racing. Trainers don't dare risk their valuable horseflesh on a half-mile oval. Most of the better Maryland jockeys are elsewhere.

But in one sense, Timonium still succeeds where the major-leaguers fail. It has soul. You can touch it. The cold necessity of simulcasting and OTB has turned the rest of the sport into a giant betting barn, just another set of lottery numbers, but Timonium is full of life.

"Pimlico and Laurel are business; this is a break from that," jockey Dean Purdom said. "This is where you get back to having fun. This is where it all started. Horse racing started at state fairs, county fairs. People saying, 'I betcha $10 my horse can outrun yours.' "

It is a vacation from the big time, nothing if not an opportunity for luckless athletes, equine and otherwise.

"For the horse that can't quite get it done at Pimlico or Laurel, this is the chance to be a star for a day," trainer Larry Smith said after his Our Weapon finally won one the other day.

Billy Sweat won at Timonium last summer with El Bourbon and spent the year pointing at a return. His trainer picked out a four-furlong race and procured a jockey. Sweat took two weeks of vacation and motored up with a friend. They did the fair one night, sweating their chances.

El Bourbon won again.

"You give a horse like this a chance here," Sweat said.

You give jockeys a chance here, too, jockeys like Marchant, who hadn't raced since Charles Town two years ago. Marchant was a natural, in the hunt for an Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice, then broke a kneecap and ankle in one car accident and fractured a vertebra in another.

He rehabbed and went back to the track, but only as an exercise rider, galloping horses in the morning for $7 a head. ("Not that they always pay you," he said.) He wasn't ready for the pressure of the afternoons, and getting mounts after a layoff is never easy, especially without an agent.

"I was waiting for Timonium," he said. "This is my track. They call it 'The Bull Ring' because of the turns, which is like Charles Town. I won my first race here. I knew I could come back here."

He could come back because many of the top jockeys are on vacation and someone has to ride these horses, and exercise boys generally get the shot. Last weekend, Marchant rode in his first race since the accidents. Two days later, he had three mounts.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," he said. "I got in that gate the first time and suddenly it was like I'd never stopped. I haven't won one yet. But tomorrow I'm on some bears."

Before each race at Timonium, the jockeys descend from a cinderblock jock's room by the first turn and mount the horses in the dusty paddock near the south end of the grandstand. Few fans wander down to inspect. The crowd is full of families, amateur bettors.

"You get a different cut of people from what you see at the major tracks," said Hamilton Smith, El Bourbon's trainer. "It looks to me like a lot of country people."

The horses parade in front of the stands and back up into one of the chutes to start the race. They're so close that you can still see their numbers on the backstretch.

"The whole thing is great," Larry Smith said. "It's alive. It's hands-on. You aren't watching the race through two inches of plexiglass. You aren't sitting in a cafeteria somewhere watching on TV."

It's not just numbers, it's horses. The way it used to be.

"I rode at fairs in California and Colorado besides this one," jockey Purdom said. "They've all got Ferris wheels. They're all a good time. You don't come here with a serious attitude. When you see that Ferris wheel, you know you're going to have fun."

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