Children and adults admiring the hot-air balloons at Turf Valley Resort in a few days can thank a Howard County native who loves horses for bringing the popular Preakness event to the county.
Laura Clark, 25, was a serious rider between the ages of 9 and 13, she said, competing in English-style horse shows throughout the region. After graduating from Glenelg Country School, she attended Purdue University with the goal of becoming a veterinarian.
An internship at the Maryland Jockey Club, though, led her down a slightly different career path, and now she is director of special projects for the Preakness Stakes, Baltimore's second jewel in the Triple Crown that takes place Saturday.
Now in her second year of organizing Preakness events, Clark has been working to expand the celebration. This year, for the first time, the Preakness Balloon Fest, a particularly well-liked Preakness tradition, will include events at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City.
"The public has always loved the Balloon Fest, and we wanted to expand it," Clark said.
The event brings together a local ballooning business and a piece of property with a long horse-racing pedigree.
Ron Broderick of West Friendship, a balloon pilot and owner of the Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co., is organizing Preakness-related balloon activities for the second year. Each year, it has grown larger, and Clark wants the trend to continue.
Last year, the balloon festival was brought back to Oregon Ridge, where it had been held in the past. And this year, Howard County will host an additional balloon festival, this one officially known as the Preakness Balloon Fest at Turf Valley Resort, presented by the Kenneth Clark Co. Inc.
On Wednesday, enormous hot-air balloons will be on the property. For $2, visitors will be able to walk through a balloon that is fully inflated but not aloft. For $15 ($5 for children), visitors can take a short, tethered ride. At dusk, the balloons will all be lighted from within in what is known as a "balloon glow."
The next morning, the balloons are to be launched at 6:30 a.m., with rides offered for $190 a person. "Hopefully, all 16 balloons will be able to launch," said Broderick, who is flying his balloon, as well as recruiting balloon pilots from around the country to participate.
Clark said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism, suggested Turf Valley as a possible location for a Howard County hot-air balloon event. Clark spoke with Regina Ford, the resort's director of marketing. "Once Regina and I talked, this was the place we wanted to have it," Clark said.
Ford said the main consideration was making sure that golf members would not be deprived of access to the course. The timing of the events -- in the evening and early morning -- meant that would not be a problem, she said.
The site is particularly appropriate because it was once a horse farm, noted Clark. The 1,000-acre property was cobbled together from several farms and purchased by Sam Pistorio in the late 1940s, as his nephew, Don Pistorio, explained. Sam Pistorio used the property to breed and train racehorses as a hobby. Many of those horses were successful in stakes races throughout the region.
He converted the property into the county's first country club in the 1960s. In 1978, it was sold to the current owner, the Mangione family. In 1988, a luxury hotel was added. Turf Valley is now a resort that is open to the public.
But the offspring of some of those horses are now being bred and trained by Sam Pistorio's nephew, Don, and Don's wife, Christina, who live in Howard County. They have 13 horses at a small farm off Marriottsville Road called Tuscany Farm, and one will run on Preakness day, though not in the Stakes, Don said.
"I just kept the tradition going," he said.
Clark said she is so busy these days she hardly has time to ride, and she rarely sees horses during her workday, even though her offices are at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. But her love of horses has brought a piece of the Preakness to Howard County.
"I think it's great," said Don Pistorio.
If you go
What: The Preakness Balloon Fest
Where: Turf Valley Resort, 2700 Turf Valley Road, Ellicott City (overflow parking at Chapelgate Presbyterian Church, 2600 Marriottsville Road, with shuttle service to and from the event.)
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday -- A balloon will be open for visitors to walk through, and some will be available for tethered rides. The cost for a walk-through will be $2; short rides will be $5 for children younger than 12 and $15 for adults. At dusk, the balloons will be illuminated in a "balloon glow."
6:30 a.m. Thursday -- Balloons will be launched.
Information: For updates on weather-related changes and other details: 410-465-1500, Ext. 2874.