'Pony Pals' saddle up children Racing: Karin De Francis' brainchild gives youngsters a behind-the-scenes introduction to the sport and, in the process, builds fans for the industry.

May 11, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Trainer Richard Small pushes a wheelbarrow full of horse feed into the middle of the crowd standing around his barn at Pimlico Race Course and basically tells them to dig in.

"This is what the horses eat," he says, pointing to the pile of oats. "It's like cereal. A lot of other stuff gets mixed in -- molasses, vitamins, salt -- but basically it's what you make oatmeal out of."

And with that, he puts a dish of a molasses mix and one containing green vitamin pellets on top of the oats, takes a bit of each and eats. A dozen of so children and their parents follow his example.

"It's crunchy," says JulianBiggs, an 11-year-old from Wood Middle School in Rockville, here with his parents. "It's like granola."

It is 8: 30 a.m., when more than 200 children, their friends and family arrive at the track to take part in a new, monthly program called "Pony Pals," an invention of Karin De Francis, senior vice president of Pimlico and Laurel Park. Pals is designed to introduce young people to what goes on behind the scenes at a racetrack.

"This is the future of our sport," says Karin's brother, Joe De Francis, president of the tracks, who was on hand to greet the first group to experience the program at Pimlico. "But I'm surprised by how many children and families have signed up. I have to tell you, when Karin -- it was her idea -- first approached me, I was skeptical. My first question was, 'Why do we want all these kids running around here?' But she was right. These are fans for the future."

Even as the racing industry celebrates its most dynamic time of the year, with its Triple Crown, it continues to worry about its aging fan base.

As Small, 52, says: "Most of the people in the grandstands are as old as me."

Pony Pals started last fall at Laurel and already has more than 1,000 members. The program, which is free, begins with each participant being asked to read a form that says everyone promises to be careful, quiet and obedient around the horses. Each adult is given a free pass for a future visit.

Besides the stable tours, the day is filed with crafts -- like the making of a crown to denote the Triple Crown -- and other entertainment, such as face painting, magic shows and sometimes a visit from Kinderman, host of a local children's television program.

On this day, it is threatening to rain and it is chilly, but the weather doesn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the Pony Pals. They have just met trainer John DiNatale, who explains morning workouts and gives the assemblage a look at the paddock area and insight into how a horse is saddled and readied for a race.

After that, the crowd is split into five groups for barn tours. As the groups leave the grandstand area and head for the barns, the first thing everyone notices is the smell.

"It's yucky!" says Patrick Thorp, 8, as he pinches his nose.

But Patrick and his sisters, Elizabeth, 9, and Catherine, 7, are not ready to turn back. A blacksmith, Ronnie Talbott, is waiting up ahead, and they are urging their parents, Donald Jones and Debria Smith, to move faster.

Talbott and fellow blacksmith Eddie Bourne show everyone the horseshoes that are fitted to hoofs, and ask if there are any questions.

"Can he feel any of that?" someone asks as Talbott pounds a shoe into a hoof.

"No," Talbott says. "It's like trimming your toenails. But if you trim it too short, it can hurt."

And with that, Bourne passes around a sliver of "toenail," sheared from the front of a hoof. This is a big treat, as eager little hands reach to touch the clipping.

"What's the horse's name?" asks a small voice.

"I don't know," says Talbott, who later learns the horse is Dudley. "What do you want it to be?"

"Horsy," the small voice replies.

"All right, if you see him this afternoon, you call him Horsy."

The crowd laughs and then moves on to Small's stables. Small is one of six trainers who has volunteered to work with the Pony Pals.

"I think it gets kids interested in horses," he says. "I'm a little outspoken on this, but everyone around here is so concerned about the aspect of casinos and gambling that they miss the racing. There is nothing like the racing. It's the best part of the whole thing, and it just gets missed."

On these Pony Pals tours, no one was talking about gambling. The tour doesn't point out the betting windows.

"The children are here to see the animals, not go to the betting windows," says John Creighton of Severna Park, who with his wife, Barbara, brought their three grandchildren, Suni, 7, Meghan, 10 and Eric McKinney, 6, on the tour. "This is all about the animals, and it's good for youngsters to get to see all this. It's a sport, too, you know."

This tour was about questions like the one Sterling Bruton asks while holding a piece of a horse's tooth: "Do horses brush their teeth?"

And it was about comments like the one Julian Biggs makes when asked what he thinks of the Pony Pals' concept: "It's pretty cool, being able to see the horses in the barn and being able to touch their noses and learn that they're so soft."

They learn about the horse's nose from Trooper, Small's gentle lead pony, who stands quietly as children and adults approach him two by two to pat his nose.

"This is fun," says Bruton, 7. "Its nose is warm, like a comforter. I love horses. I want to ride them when I grow up."

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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