Though the weather on St. Patrick’s Day promised to remain overcast with temperatures in the 40s, I was thrilled to be heading to Laurel Park, in Laurel, Maryland, with my good friend, Matt Smoot, at the wheel.
Matt and his wife, Courtney, have a beautiful farm in Northern Virginia, where I have been enjoying their hospitality for a few days. Courtney opted to stay behind to work her horses, as the blustery winds of the past few days had calmed.
This was my introductory visit to Laurel, and our first stop was the barn on the backside where Matt’s race horses are stabled, in the care and training of Hugh McMahon. Matt and his racing partner have worked with Hugh for over a decade, and I enjoyed sitting back and listening to them discuss how their horses were training, while I casually took photos.
With some racing business out of the way, we found a quiet spot from which to operate for the afternoon. This was Matt’s home track when he was growing up, and he shared stories about his first trips to the track with his beloved step-father, his education in handicapping and the first horses he raced as an owner.
My visit to see my dear friends was planned just a week ago, when Matt was considering entering his best horse in a stakes race. While that decision went another direct, I was still anxious to see my friends and get back to the track for some real racing.
My rapt attention to Matt’s fascinating stories was shaken by the call to the post for the first race. I grabbed my camera, leaving my down jacket behind, and stopped out to the rail as the post parade completed and the horses headed for the starting gate, positioned in the chute for the 7 furlong sprint.
To my delight, a young jockey I had met back in California, Jorge Vargas, had mounts in 8 of the 11 races on the card. Jorge was represented by Sherman family friend, Mark North, and was around the barn at Los Alamitos a couple years ago, training horses and picking up a few mounts for races at Santa Anita and Del Mar.
My recollection was that being so far from family was difficult, and once he returned to the east coast, he found his place and was doing very well. I enjoyed watching Jorge's mount run third and second in the first two races of the afternoon.
That's Jorge, on the 6 horse in the second race of the day.
While waiting at the rail for races to begin, I chatted with spectators and regular visitors to the track, who pointed out a pair of Bald Eagles perched on a sign in the infield. Throughout the afternoon, photographers tried to get close to the impressive birds, only to have them fly off as soon as a camera was raised to capture a shot.
As the afternoon unfolded, we enjoyed the performances of each group of jockeys and equine athletes, awaiting the walk over and paddock appearance of Hugh's trainee, Up Hill Battle. The 6 horse in the sixth race - The Conniver Stakes. (For Maryland Bred or Sired horses.)
I had enjoyed to warmth of the clubhouse right up to post time for the first five races of the day, but with Hugh racing in the sixth, I perched on the wall separating the paddock from fans and watched as the team readied their horse for the race.
As generally happens for me, once the horses exit the paddock and parade in front of the fans, time stands still. When I have my eye on a horse, or have some special connections through friends that cause me to pull for a good trip, The time from paddock to starting gate seems like eons.
It being St. Patrick's Day, outriders had dressed their ponies in festive shades of green - to ward off pinches that would certainly cause a problem for the ponies.
As the horses entered the starting gate - it began to snow.
Any race where horses and riders finish sound is a good race. That's what you say when the team you are pulling for doesn't quite make it onto the marquee that lists the top four horses in each race. This was the case with The Conniver Stakes on March 17, 2018.
Still, I was grateful for safe trips, new connections, and good friends. Even if the weather turned cold and wet, driving us from the track after the sixth race.
Matt and I stopped at the grocery store on our way back to the farm, allowing me to pick up the supplies to make linguine and clams for my friends - part of my repayment for their lovely company and comfy accomodations.
My next stop for horse racing will be the Blue Grass Stakes on the opening weekend of Keeneland's spring meet. I hope to see some great performances as colts and fillies qualify for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. I hope you'll join me!
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