Approaching the starting gate at Timonium. Photo by The Racing Biz.

“Every year I feel like we’re improving things,” says Bill Reightler. “We’re on parity now with purses at Laurel and Pimlico. We’ve got a potential $125,000 stake on Sunday, College Day on Friday, and we’re going to try twilight racing.”

The Timonium race meet, like the Maryland State Fair, of which it’s a part, was put in mothballs in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both are back for 2021, though, and they kick off August 27.

Reightler, along with racing committee chairman Bill Marlow, committee member Ferris Allen, and Gerry Brewster, chairman of the board of the State Fair, have devoted plenty of sweat equity to building up a meet that just a few years ago seemed a relic of the past.

While how the 2021 meet plays out remains to be seen, early returns are promising. On each of the first two days of the meet, Timonium will present nine races – which in this era of declining horse population was no guarantee. Five of the 18 races carded are allowance contests.

And Sunday’s Timonium Juvenile Stakes – which carries a base purse of $75,000 supplemented by an additional $25,000 for Maryland-bred runners and $25,000 beyond that for Maryland-sired – has drawn more than three dozen nominations.

The seemingly enhanced interest in racing at Timonium likely stems from a combination of factors. With purses now at parity with Maryland’s “mile tracks,” Laurel and Pimlico, one of the incentives for skipping the Big T meet is gone. Friday’s top contest, for example, is a second-level allowance with an eye-opening purse of $52,000; and daily purses are set to average $287,000.

A $40,000 trainer bonus doesn’t hurt, either. That’ll encourage horsemen to “enter early and often.”

And there’s a third factor. During the recent closure of Laurel Park, hundreds of horses were stabled at Timonium for about three months – the first time in years that the Big T had an indigenous horse population.

Marlow, the chairman of the board’s racing committee, said at the time that there were three types of horses stabled there: “Horses that love it here, horses that don’t like it here, and horses that don’t care either way. But the only way a trainer knows if a horse likes this track is to train over it.”

Those that love it are a lot more likely to make a return trip for live racing. For example, in Friday’s second race, a bottom-level maiden claimer for two-year-old fillies, all six of the horses entered were stabled at the Big T during Laurel’s closure.

For a variety of reasons, Timonium is never likely to be a huge draw in terms of simulcast dollars. But it still has an important fan development role to play in the state’s racing industry. The State Fair draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, many with no knowledge of horse racing at all. Exposing those throngs to the Sport of Kings could have spinoff benefits for years to come.

“We think we have an historic role to play, and a commitment to continue participating in the industry,” Brewster, the State Fair board chairman, says.

“That’s the mission, and that’s the problem we have,” says Reightler. “We’ve got to get more people, especially young people, interested in this sport.”

To that end, meet organizers have dotted the calendar with events: College Day, which will see $10,000 in college scholarships awarded; Sunday’s card, which in addition to the stakes race will include ceremonies honoring three new inductees into the Maryland Thoroughbred Hall of Fame. The Horseland tent, down towards the far turn, will return once again.

And for the first time, the Fair will hold a card of twilight racing. Friday’s meet-opening card will kick off at 3:00 p.m., while the other days of the meet will have a first post of 12:40. While the time change spurred concern in some quarters, meet organizers decided the potential upside – giving the tens of thousands of commuters driving by on York Road and I-83 a chance to stop by for a few races – made it worth the shot.

All in all, there’s a sense of optimism among Big T meet organizers as the meet nears.

And there’s even good news on one important question that prompts a big laugh from Brewster, who says he was the “former tallest licensed jockey in the United States” when he rode jump races years ago.

“The lawn jockey – orange and black with ‘Big T’ painted on the chest – the lawn jockey after many, many years was absent [at the last Timonium meet],” Brewster says. “The lawn jockey returns this year, for this race meet. He’s already out there.”

BIG T NOTES Jockey Kevin Gomez led all riders during the 2019 meet with seven winners. He has a dozen mounts during the first two days of racing, while Xavier Perez, who had six 2019 winners, has eight… Anthony Farrior, who won seven races to top the 2019 trainer standings, has 10 horses entered during the first two days of the meet. Hugh McMahon, second in 2019, has six… Three horses – Giggling, He’s Meant to Be, and Dat Dares Gold – won twice each to top the 2019 meet…