Timonium Fair Racing Opens, 1887

Sep 1st 2010 08:23 am |

Racing at Timonium, 2009

This Saturday, I am heading south to spend the day at Timonium Race Track on the Maryland State Fairgrounds north of Baltimore. The racing oval at Timonium is one of the oldest in the country and the meet there is the only one held in conjunction with a fair east of the Mississippi.  The grounds at Timonium started as a county fairgrounds in 1879 and the first race meeting commenced in 1887.

Once upon a time, a horse racing fair circuit thrived in the United States. Those who remember watching the races at a fairground will no doubt have fond memories to share. Bring up the Massachusetts fair to anyone who attended those races and they will surely share a story. Andy Beyer immortalized the fun (and larceny) at the Barrington Fair in Massachusetts in his classic My $50,000 Year at the Races. One of my articles about a riot that took place at Suffolk Downs in the 1940s has attracted commenters with stories about the fair circuit in Massachusetts.

In 1939, the year after Pimlico hosted the most famous race of the twentieth century, Marylanders supported five tracks and fifty days of racing on a state-wide fair circuit. Today, only Timonium and seven days of racing remain.

The track at Timonium opened in 1887, eleven years after the establishment of the fairgrounds. In checking the news reports from the Baltimore Sun, the first day of racing didn’t go all that smoothly. In a long review of all the activity at the opening day of the fair, the article reported this on September 7th 1887:

“The horse races are the leading attraction. Just prior to the hour of starting them yesterday it was discovered that the starter’s bell was stolen. A large dinner bell was secured and Mr. Arthur Emory, the starting judge handled it masterly. The first race was for horses of the three-minute class, mile heats, best 3 in 5, to harness, purse $200. It closed with eleven entries, but just before the start some owners of the county horses objected to Baltimore city horses starting, and produced the catalogue, which showed that the purse was offered for Baltimore county horses only, while the Baltimore city owners produced a copy of the advertisement for entries, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun, in which no specifications was made as to where the horses were owned. The advertisement was taken as official against the catalogue and the horses ordered to start. The county horses withdrew…an extra race will be arranged for the county horses that did not start in this race.”

The first day of racing only had four races. The second race was also for harness horses. The third carried this condition:

“…a running race for ponies not over 14 1/2 hands high, and riders not over 15 years of age, half mile heats, best two out of three. First horse got a saddle, second a bridle and third a whip…”

The final race of the day was a steeplechase race for “gentleman riders” at a distance of 1 1/2 miles. Also of note on opening day, a rabbit that made its way onto the track between heats “…created considerable amusement as he passed through a perfect fusillade of missiles, which were thrown at him without any of them striking him…” The newspaper also noted that the Middletown Coronet Band would be performing daily during the race meet. The opening day of racing at Timonium must have been memorable one for those in attendance.

While opening day didn’t have any flat races for thoroughbreds, the opening meet would include “dashes”. This was the terminology used for non-heat flat races for thoroughbreds before they became the common form of racing in the U.S. by the end of the nineteenth century.

Harness racing disappeared from the program at Timonium by the beginning of the twentieth century and “dashes”, steeplechase, donkey races, and other odd conditions comprised the day’s entertainment. Here are the race results from the tenth of September 1904:

From the Baltimore Sun, 11 September 1904

Timonium racing has survived the pressures of development and a declining Maryland racing industry. They lost many of their race dates in the 1980s and nearly closed for good in 1984 but the track continues to survive through tough times and carry on a racing tradition over a century old and counting.


“Timonium Fair: Auspicious Opening of a Fine Display of Baltimore County Products,” Baltimore Sun, 7 September 1887

Information about the Maryland fair circuit in 1939 from “Twentieth Annual Report of the Maryland Racing Commission”

Joe DeVivo published this piece about Timonium for the Daily Racing Form last week.

The Racing Hall of Fame now has a blog….check it out!

After a whirlwind of stellar, high class racing in August, i’ll be back in the working class world of racing at Timonium on Saturday — I’ll have a full report with pictures next week.


Filed in fair racing,Maryland State Fair,thoroughbred racing history,Timonium race track

3 Responses to “Timonium Fair Racing Opens, 1887”

  1. Frank says:

    Good stuff, Kevin — I think racing has lost something with the demise of the fair circuits.

  2. Ron Micetic says:

    Thanks, Kevin. Another meet added to my “bucket list.”

  3. Edward De Vere says:

    Kevin – You probably already know this but others may not:

    A relatively new building at the other end of the fair grounds has a room dedicated to the history of the fair and the track. Well worth a few minutes before the races. (I’m not sure it’s open after 5:00 or 6:00.)