by Frank Vespe
“We can’t just sit on the side and let the world pass us by,” says Ross Peddicord, and he’s a man who knows whereof he speaks.
Peddicord, the executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, has been involved with horses and horse racing for decades, and now as the head of the government body charged with safeguarding the health and well-being of the Free State’s horse industry, he’s helping push a variety of initiatives to bring horses and people together.
The latest: the My Maryland Horse Festival, at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium. One piece of the Horse Festival, Horse Land, opens Friday, August 28 and runs through Labor Day. The other, Horse Fest, which will take place in the racetrack infield, will be held September 1-2.
“The fair is one big gigantic agricultural education experience,” Peddicord says. “What was missing was an opportunity to educate folks about horses.”
To that end, Fair board member, Don Litz, a longtime Maryland horseman, came up with the idea to further expand on these activities and provide educational opportunities to attract new folks not only to Thoroughbred racing, but as many of the 35 equestrian disciplines in the state as possible. With the help of Fair general manager Andy Cashman and assistant general manager Becky Brashear, Litz cooked up the idea of the Festival.
“We are truly thrilled to be working with so many wonderful people from the state’s horse industry,” Brashear says. “This event is a huge effort and is taking quite a bit of organization to get started. But we think it is going to be a terrific addition to the Fair.”
Horse Land will take place under a big tent pitched between the racetrack grandstand and Kiddie Land, an assortment of amusement rides just for children and families located in the parking lot in front of the Fair’s administration building.
Among the activities: a petting area where kids can interact with donkeys and with a pony named Elvis, courtesy of Fasig-Tipton Company’s Paget Bennett; mini-horsemanship lessons from City Ranch; and an equine-assisted learning session.
Racing folks like Fran Burns, former jocks Bobby Lillis and Donnie Miller, and April Smith will provide racetrack tours to introduce people to the sport; and Stan Salter will broadcast his Maryland Horse Radio Show live from the grounds one evening, as well as presenting handicapping seminars.
“There’s already a lot of horse activity at the Fair,” notes Peddicord, listing a rodeo, show ring activity, and a horse pulling contest, as well as the seven days of live Thoroughbred racing. “Everyone’s excited about this opportunity. There are 400,000 people that come to the fair over an 11-day period, and if we get one percent of them, that’s 4,000 people to come and learn about horses.”
Peddicord is excited about the chance to bring kids and horses together.
“That’s how it all starts,” he explains. “That’s how I got started. I was at the State Fair, and I would wander over to the racetrack. When you’re an impressionable child, all of this is like a wonderland, and it’s so different from what you experience in everyday life.”
Of course, not all of the activities are for kids. The Horse Fest, taking place from 4:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on September 1 and 2, when no concerts or live racing are scheduled, will cater to a more adult crowd. That event, coordinated by the Maryland Jockey Club’s Phoebe Hayes, will include exhibitions from the Suttler Post Clydesdales; trick rider Jeff Dwyer and his Morgan gelding Cocoa; and a preview of the upcoming Thoroughbred Makeover, among other activities.
It will also be enlived with a Maryland’s Best Wine and Beer Garden featuring local wine from Boordy Vineyards and brews from Heavy Seas Beer, food trucks and music.
More than 100 volunteers from all parts of the state’s horse industry are working to pull the Horse Festival off, and the event is being supported financially by groups like the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, Maryland Million, Maryland Horse Industry Board, Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, Rosecroft, Maryland Standardbred Breeders Association and Ocean Downs, as well as the State Fair itself.
“Let’s say it’s very gratifying that everybody is pulling on the same team now, very unified,” says Peddicord, a description that has not always been applied to the horse industry.
Peddicord points out that in addition to the different factions of the racing industry working together, the horse community has begun to bridge the divide between the racing and non-racing elements of the industry. That, he says, is in large measure due to the versatility of the Thoroughbred itself, as retired racers have demonstrated their ability to excel in other disciplines, from steeplechasing to fox hunting to barrel racing to trail riding and beyond.
The makeover demo that’s part of Horse Fest, for example, will include Maryland-bred fan favorite Eighttofasttocatch, a millionaire and three-time Maryland Million Classic winner, another connection between the racing and non-racing worlds.
That makes sense, says Peddicord, and also why he believes the My Maryland Horse Festival will succeed.
“Everyone loves horses,” he says. “That’s the connecting factor.”