FAIR HILL — The blazing heat Saturday was certainly not a deterrent for the huge crowd that lined the racetrack, packed the tailgating areas, bustled up and down the alley of shops and food vendors, and stretched back from betting windows at the 84th Running of the Fair Hill Races.
By the time Gov. Larry Hogan arrived — the first visit to the races by a sitting governor in recent memory — the races were in full swing and there wasn't a grey cloud in the sky nor a frown on any attendee's face.
“This is only our second year, but we're really enjoying the racing and glad to be supporting Union Hospital,” said Fair Hill's Tom Pahutski, who brought along his family and friends. “We're staying cool and enjoying it as a family."
The Fair Hill Races draw more than 12,000 spectators annually and is considered to be Cecil County’s largest annual single-day event. It’s also the only steeplechase race in the country to offer parimutuel betting, and all proceeds from the races benefit Union Hospital.
Staying cool was a big theme of the day, as the Rita's Italian Ice truck was swamped with people for the whole day. Fashion, as is for most years, was on full display, and Joanny and Justin Raducha, of Aberdeen, took it in stride by shopping for hats.
“It's our first year, and we couldn't be happier with the beautiful weather and horses,” Joanny Raducha said. “It's been a great Memorial Day weekend.”
The tailgaters had a bit more shade with their tents and were embracing the weather as well as the spirit of friends and family that the longtime steeplechase races bring out each and every year, with many families coming from all over the country to reunite.
“We're coming from different areas,” said Amy Chaplin, who came with her mother Debby and fiancee Rob. “I've been coming for 30 years, but it's Rob's first time, and he's coming from New Jersey. There's not a lot of events like this up there. I grew up here so I love this. It's laid back, it's local people and you meet and mingle with friends you haven't seen in a while.”
At the next tent over was Amy's high school friend Amanda Parsons, of North East, who also brought her family and had just won a prize for her spectacular hat — race organizers hold a contest each year for best hat as well as best tailgate group that fits a particular theme.
“It's all about family, friends and food,” Parsons said. “And since the theme for the tailgate contest this year is National Parks, we decided to put up a bulletin board of all the parks we've been to.”
As the races went on, Hogan appeared on the jumbotron to speak to the crowd.
“The horse industry is so important to the state of Maryland,” he said. “It creates a lot of jobs and is important to our economy and history, and I'm glad to be here.”
Regina Moolenschot and her family had just won by betting on the first place horse in the Coggin's Race, which was the sixth of the day, and were thrilled by the governor's appearance.
“We're happy Gov. Hogan is here,” Moolenschot said. “This is an epic moment for Cecil County and we're proud to share it with the whole state.”
Patty Buchanan, another attendee who had been coming to the races for more than 30 years, added, “We're very happy to have him here.”
But as the day went on, and the races began to come to a close, it was tailgaters Amy and Debby Chaplin who truly explained why, year after year, the county continues to come en masse to these races that started more than several generations ago.
“This is just the place to be,” Amy said. “We've met old friends we haven't seen in years.”
“Cecil County is one of the best communities to live and grow up in,” Debby added. “It's an exciting day to be here, and it's the people coming out for fun and for charity that keep these races going.”