FAIR HILL -- Steeplechase racing ended its spring meet in summer heat in Cecil County yesterday.
It was so hot at the Fair Hill Races that the ice cream line was longer than the lines at any betting window. It was so hot that there were nearly as many race-goers lurking in the cool beneath the grandstands as in the seats. And by midday, the rows of opened beach umbrellas seemed to stretch from here to Ocean Downs.
One day each year, Fair Hill opens for racing and legal wagering. It's the only steeplechase track in the country that allows pari-mutuel betting.
"That adds to the fun," said Jody Petty, one of the sport's top jockeys. "People go to some of these events more for the parties and leave without knowing who won any races.
"Here, you can feel people rooting for you - or against you. I can live with that."
Petty won the $30,000 feature race aboard Imagina, who never led until the final quarter-mile of the 2 1/4 -mile Valentine Memorial Sport of Queens Hurdle Stakes.
For Petty, it was a fitting end to the spring campaign. He grew up in Elkton, 10 miles away, and attended North East High. In 2005, Petty led all steeplechase jockeys in victories; last year, he was tops in total earnings.
Yesterday, he scored on what he called one of the most challenging courses in America.
"Most courses have cut back to 10 or 12 jumps, but Fair Hill still has 15," Petty said. "There are few of them where you can come to the backstretch and see four hurdles in a row - ping, ping, ping, ping - all lined up perfectly.
"I love it. That's what steeplechasing is all about."
The seven-race card drew a crowd of more than 16,000, an eclectic mix of the horsey set and hard-nosed railbirds drawn by the opportunity to bet on a different sport. There were men wearing ties and women with tattoos; men dressed in skull caps and women in posh spring hats worthy of the Preakness.
"You've got your bluebloods and your bums like us," said Doug Wolfe of Jensen Beach, Fla.
Several vehicles were being raffled off - everything from a 2008 BMW 328i to a Toyota truck.
"The ambience of this place is out of this world," said Jim McElroy of Lancaster, Pa. He came wearing overalls.
Roy Lloyd, 67, stood beneath his beach umbrella, shirtless. He had gold chains around his neck and a Bloody Mary in his hand. He had come to bet on every race, but there was a hitch: The lines at the betting windows offered no shade.
"This sun is tough on us guys with bald heads," the Bel Air native said.