A birthday at the races Parties: Hoping to create the railbirds of tomorrow, Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course offer celebratory bashes for children.

July 26, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Sean Wilson Jr. was not, strictly speaking, betting on the horses yesterday at Laurel Park, even if he was clenching his fists and shouting, "Baby G! Baby G! Baby G!" the entire first race.

What he was doing, technically speaking, was celebrating his birthday with about a dozen of his friends and cousins, rooting for his horses and a fortune. On Tuesday, he turns 6.

The racetrack might seem an unlikely place for a kid who is learning addition to bring his buddies, and until about a year ago, such a birthday party would not have happened in an organized way. But officials at Laurel and Pimlico Race Course have shed the blinders, and with an eye toward the future, they are making a spirited bid to attract a new generation of fans to the rails.

The tracks are hurting financially, and with prospects for General Assembly approval of cash-generating slot machines shaky at best, officials there are doing what they can to not only keep their old fans but attract new ones.

In addition to family days, the tracks are promoting birthday parties for children, inviting them and their parents to talk with jockeys, shake hoofs with a puffy mascot and eat birthday cake in a private dining area between jaunts to the betting windows.

"A lot of parents come, and so we're bringing new people to the track who we haven't seen before, and at the same time we're building fans for the future," said Karin De Francis, senior vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns and operates the tracks. "This really evolved as an effort to build our fan base."

That's what had Sean's grandmother Azeal Wilson concerned -- that her grandson was going to swap his angel wings for those of a railbird. But she says she is not the type to speak up when she thinks her son, Sean Sr., is making a mistake in raising his son.

"But I couldn't imagine a birthday party at the track," she said halfway through yesterday's two-hour party. "I thought, 'Oh my, this is going to teach these kids to gamble!' "

Gambling, though, has little to do with the event, as far as the kids are concerned. Sure, some of the parents will let the little ones pick a horse, but elders putting down the cash seemed to realize that actual money was at stake during the races.

"This might be the most expensive part of the party for me," said Sean Sr., 32, who had just lost his second consecutive race.

When he had his son look at the official race program, though, he knew he had picked a winner in organizing the party, surprising not only Sean but also his little buddies and cousins in his Columbia neighborhood. Atop the list of horses in the first race, the program was customized to acknowledge the day's guest of honor. It said: "SEAN -- #1 JOCKEY ON YOUR 6TH BIRTHDAY."

After reading it, the birthday boy gave a grin wide enough to show the space where his front tooth had been. "Does that mean I'm a horse bettor?" he asked.

The people at the track hope that some day he will be. Horse racing is a $1.2 billion industry in Maryland, responsible for 17,000 jobs and with a history that is generally dated to 1743.

In recent years, though, Maryland's slotless tracks have had to compete against West Virginia and Delaware tracks, where slot machines are legal and raking in billions of dollars. Pimlico and Laurel have been caught in a financial Catch-22: They need big money to make major improvements to the tracks, but they also need major improvements to generate that big money.

Short of that, track officials will rely on the energy it takes to expose people to the track and, they hope, keep them.

Which leads back to the birthday parties. They cost $8 per child, with parents admitted free. The cost also covers a ride aboard a carpeted "horse" on springs, which is used for training by the jockeys.

Wearing racing goggles, the guests climb atop it and urge it to go. They get to chat with the jockeys and watch a race from the winner's circle. They are fed lunch and, of course, ice cream and birthday cake. And they get to watch their parents jump up and down, like them.

It should be noted that Azeal Wilson -- the proud grandmother who purported to be concerned about the gambling -- checked out the racing form and, in the No. 2 race, plunked down $2 to show on Little Tout. She won.

"Oh, I'll be back," she said after collecting her payoff, $1.20 in hard cash.

"We might be back next week."

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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