Ever since Delaware Park began offering one race a day for Arabian horses, fans there have become accustomed to some odd sights and sounds.
For example, the names of the horses don't sound like horses. Pity the poor track announcer who has to describe how Tee Leef Scr, Bjt Seratiki and Plf Hammurabi are fighting for the lead.
And in comparison with thoroughbreds, the Arabians are slooooow. A bettor might watch the start of a race, go to a concession stand to get a hot dog and return in time to shout, "Come on, Flaming Tron Ku!" through the stretch run, since it can take the animals as long as 1:23 to cover three quarters of a mile.
But even though Delaware regulars gradually have become accustomed to the strange ways of the Arabians, it still was a little startling when a first-time starter named Curundus Tonka showed up in the entries for a maiden race last week. The mare was making her debut at the age of 12 -- which must have been unprecedented in U.S. racing. What had she been doing for the last decade?
A phone call to Curundu Farm, located near Oxon Hill, did not immediately solve this mystery. I asked for the mare's listed trainer, Angel Hall Gingrich, and was told, "She can't come to the phone right now; she's got a dog in the tub." Yes, Arabian racing is pretty strange.
But when Gingrich was available, she did explain the connection between the 12-year-old first-time starter and the dog in the tub.
Bob McPherson, who owns Curundu Farm, used to be a professional dog handler and he operates a large boarding kennel. He always has been especially fond of boxer dogs and he was attracted to Arabian horses because they have a similar type of head. So he started breeding and raising Arabians on his farm, too. A year ago, he hired Gingrich, who had been working with thoroughbreds at Penn National Race Course, to be his trainer and farm manager.
Arabians are most often seen in horse shows, and they are used for pleasure riding, but they still have a bit of competitive fire in them. (The Arabians were, after all, the ancestors of the modern thoroughbred.) Gingrich felt this high-spiritedness whenever she rode Curundus Tonka.
"These horses have lovely temperaments," the trainer said, "but whenever we'd trail-ride Tonka she was always very hot -- she'd try to run off and mow everybody over. So I asked Bob if we could put her into training and see if she could make a runner. She was already fit -- she would gallop six or seven miles a day and the trail rides here on the farm would be 15 miles over some rough territory -- so I started taking her over to the training track at Upper Marlboro.
"We worked her against a couple of thoroughbreds and she showed she had a lot of heart. Tonka is a broodmare, and she's had four or five foals, and it seems that breeding mares changes them and gives them a fighter attitude. Maybe it's from having a baby and being protective. But she always tried hard to stay with the horses she was running against."
Curundus Tonka showed Gingrich enough in her workouts that the trainer entered her in a six-furlong maiden race at Delaware last Friday. Even among people who are familiar with Arabians, the appearance of a 12-year-old first-time starter provoked disbelief. "Everybody laughed at me," Gingrich conceded.
When the starting gate opened, Gingrich thought momentarily that she might have the last laugh. Despite her unfamiliarity with the gate, Curundus Tonka broke alertly, and she was running fifth after a quarter of a mile. But then she started dropping back, and back, and she finished next to last, 35 lengths behind the winner. Despite all the differences between Arabians and thoroughbreds, they have this much in common: Life does not begin at 12 for either breed.