Preakness event is up, up and away

Annual hot air balloon festival held at Turf Valley

May 07, 2008|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Turf Valley Resort played host recently to some unusual props -- a hot air balloon, an actress in costume as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, a dappled gray racehorse and a table of hand-painted jockey figurines.

All this, plus a visit from County Executive Ken Ulman, highlighted a colorful news conference that helped make the point that Maryland's Preakness celebrations are not confined to Baltimore.

For the second year in a row, Turf Valley is hosting a hot-air-balloon festival and other activities in the days leading up to the second leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown. But this year, the event is both larger and more official.

"It's fantastic that we're officially linked to Baltimore's biggest tourist event," said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism.

"This year, Turf Valley will be the centerpiece venue for the only hot air balloons in the state," said Regina Ford, director of marketing for the resort. The balloon festival, previously held at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County, has long been a centerpiece of Preakness celebrations. Howard County is now the official host of the event.

As she spoke, Ron Broderick of the Friendship Hot Air Balloon Co. was filling his brightly colored balloon with warm air, and actress Jamie Eacker, 22, was standing nearby dressed as Dorothy in ruby slippers, a blue gingham dress and braids. Ford had invited Eacker to the news conference after watching her perform in The Wizard of Oz at Toby's Dinner Theater in Baltimore.

The May 15-16 schedule includes the Hot Air Balloon Festival and a Pee-Wee Preakness with competitions for children such as three-legged races, face-painting, and appearances from characters such as Bob the VidTech.

The Preakness Balloon Launch, in which 20 hot air balloons will float gently upward, is scheduled for 6:30 a.m. May 17.

"There will be lots for families to do and see," said Ford. The more than 50 vendors at the event will include Nick Corso Pottery, Cookie Lee Jewelry, Fudgie Wudgie and Deerfield Designs, the company that hand-paints jockey figurines each year in the racing-silk colors of the participating horses. The jockey figurines are then given to the owners at the annual "alibi breakfast" before the race.

Debra Flentje said the company will sell painted mugs and other items, and take orders for custom-painted articles.

Last year, about 15 hot air balloons came to the event, said Broderick. This year, 20 are expected, including one shaped like the Energizer Bunny and another shaped like a football, he said.

Balloon-related activities will include tethered and untethered rides, as well as walk-throughs. All events are free, except for the balloon rides, which will cost $15 for tethered rides and $200 for untethered ones.

"Whoever wants to fly is going to have the opportunity to fly," promised Broderick. At dusk both days, the balloons will be lit from within in what's known as a "balloon glow."

Karen De Francis, executive vice president at Pimlico, was also on hand to praise Turf Valley and Howard County for helping the Preakness "branch beyond Baltimore City and extend the celebration."

She said Turf Valley was a "terrific fit" for Preakness events, since the property was once a horse farm. It was owned by Sam Pistorio, whose nephew, Don, was also in attendance Monday.

Don Pistorio now operates Tuscany Farm off Marriottsville Road, which trains and races horses. At the news conference, he held the bridle of a 5-year-old filly named Patty's Punchline, with rider Stacey Wagner aboard dressed in the stable's yellow and fuschia racing silks.

Ulman noted that "horse racing is so important to the culture of Howard County," and he vowed to do "anything we can do in Howard County to support the horse industry and the Preakness."

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