MAYS LANDING - Ocean City resident Kiera Murray fixed her gaze on the horses as they circled the parade area prior to the second race at Atlantic City Race Course on Sunday.
A few feet away, serious players studied the program, looking at past performances on turf, the jockeys and other statistics before they headed to the betting windows.
Five minutes before post time, Murray made her pick. The 4-year-old told her mother, Heather, that she was favoring "the purple horse," No. 10 Mystical Rain.
"Purple horse it is," father Kieran Murray said.
"I'm putting some money on the 10 horse, too," a woman standing nearby said. "What the heck. That's as good a system as any."
Mystical Rain finished up the track, but it didn't dampen Kiera's mood. She, along with more than 12,000 other fans, was content to be enjoying a sun-splashed, action-packed day at one of the country's most legendary racetracks.
Sundays have become the most popular day of ACRC's annual six-day meets, and this year's card continued that tradition. The announced attendance was 12,653, making it the second-biggest crowd to watch ACRC races in the last 25 or so years, behind only last year's 13,258.
"It just has a special affinity with people," ACRC director of operations Mary Jo Couts said. "That's certainly the case with me. I've already told my mother that I want my ashes spread here when I die. It's in my will."
Fans stood five deep at the parade area before each race. Kids got the best view by sitting on their parents' shoulders. When they got bored, they headed to the inflatable playground that track officials put up near the far entrance.
Mays Landing native Tim Davis, 35, headed there with his three children - Bryce, 4, Brianna, 3, and Brian, 1, - after spending a few minutes letting them size up the horses prior to the first race. Brianna guessed that the "pink horse" was going to win.
"That bouncy place is a great idea," Davis said while Bryce fiddled with some "Mr. Potato Heads" and Brian kept himself entertained by smacking a pair of empty water bottles on a picnic table. "The kids think it's Disneyland.
"This is our second year coming to the races. I've been coming to the track since I was a little kid. My grandfather (Edward Davis) used to take me all the time, and I wanted to do the same thing with my kids. It's a cheap day out (parking and admission are free), and it gives us a chance to get the kids outside. It's just a great way to spend an afternoon."
The Murrays and the Davises had plenty of company.
The races drew an interesting mix of people. Two men with flannel shirts stood next to a guy wearing a golf shirt with the famous yellow flag signifying it had been bought at Augusta National at the Masters. Women sporting knee-high cowboy boots mingled with girls showing off their pedicures with flip flops.
Off to the side, the Dick Martin Trio built on the theme by playing a fierce rendition of the Joe Turner rock-and-roll classic "Flip, Flop and Fly" at the outdoor beer garden. A few yards away, 2-year-old Drew Valentine, from Somers Point, played in the grass and ate yogurt while wearing a yellow jacket with "Fire Chief" emblazoned on the back.
"A friend of ours gave it to him, and he never takes it off," Drew's father, Jeff Valentine said. "I guess he's going to be a fireman someday."
Jeff Valentine, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Bayonne, was at ACRC with Seaville's Andrew Eget, who owns Jersey Marine in Somers Point.
The two met while going through basic training for the Coast Guard in Cape May more than 20 years ago and remained friends.
"I've never been here before, and I wanted to give my two boys, Drew (12) and Taylor (10), a chance to see this," Eget said. "I sent out a Facebook invite to come to the races today, and 20 people from Upper Township responded, and we wound up tail-gating in the parking lot."
Others have been coming to the venerable track for years.
Millville resident William "Hudg" Hudgins, who is giving daily handicapping seminars during the meet, has been coming to ACRC since the early 1970s.
"First and foremost, I tell everyone that it's all about having fun," Hudgins said. "And there is such a thing as beginner's luck, though that makes some of the so-called experts mad. Hunches, kids' names, colors, birthdays, go with whatever works. Just enjoy the ambiance. This is a special place."
For some, the turf course is the most special part of the course.
One of the reasons jockeys enjoy the meet is for the change to guide horses over the plush, cushiony surface that is regarded among the best in the country.
"My dad (Hall of Famer Robbie Davis) was a jockey and rode here, so it means a lot to me to ride here, too," New York's Jacqueline Davis said. "The turf is beautiful, and the crowds are great. It's an honor to be here."
Fellow jockey Maria Remedio is riding ACRC for the 10th time. Her best performance came in 2009, when she earned the most victories of any jockey in the meet.
She got a sense of just how popular the meet is with fans when she visited the Hamilton Mall on Saturday and had dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse at Caesars Atlantic City later that night.
"The waitress actually came up to me and told me how much everyone enjoys coming here," Remedio said. "This is just a very fun meet. Everyone's happy, and there's no stress. It's great."
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