MIDDLEBURG -- For nearly 30 years, the residents of this little village, located about 12 miles west of Westminster in northern Carroll County, looked out on the vast remains of what was once Maryland's most famous horse farm.
Years of neglect had taken their toll on the once proud thoroughbred establishment called Bowling Brook.
All that remained was possibly the ghost of one of its noted runners like the Duke of Magenta or Tom Ochiltree, or maybe the old man, Wyndham Walden himself, a trainer who is described as the Wayne Lukas of his era, who started building this once fabulous showplace in 1878.
Weeds and even trees camouflaged the surface of the red clay training track where seven Preakness winners had worked out; fence boards that at one time enclosed sons and daughters of Man o' War rotted off the posts; paint peeled from the 50-stall indoor galloping barn, the once splendid structure whose three large towers, holding water tanks, were a local landmark.
The place was up for sale and developers were showing interest in subdividing it into smaller tracts.
It looked like Bowling Brook might be going the way of such signature Maryland horse farms like Belair, the home of Nashua, which is now the site of about 5,000 homes and assorted malls near Bowie; or Holly Beach, the Labrot estate that now encompasses Sandy Point State Park and toll booths for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Enter Mark Gross.
About a year ago, Gross bought this whole package of faded glory and undergrowth.
To the Maryland thoroughbred establishment, he is a virtual unknown. Gross, 39, is an egg farmer/developer/restaurateur who grew up in Rosedale and later graduated from North Carroll High School in Hampstead. By his own admission, Mark Gross knows almost nothing about horses. And although he is a developer, he didn't buy Bowling Brook to carve it up into farmettes.
VTC "You can build a beautiful horse farm, and there are many, many beautiful horse farms in Maryland," he said. "But you will never find another farm in Maryland steeped in so much history as Bowling Brook. Simply put, there is not another place like it. That round galloping barn is the barn that Alfred Vanderbilt used as the model for his indoor galloping track at Sagamore [the home of Native Dancer, located in Worthington Valley]. It was a shame to lose something like this."
When Gross bought Bowling Brook, it was used as a boys home by the Raymond I. Richardson Foundation, which had bought the estate in the early 1950s from the last of Wyndham Walden's heirs.
The school for juvenile offenders used the main house as a dormitory and several of the outbuildings for classrooms and offices. There was not much interest in the equine facilities. Instead of a paddock to one side of the house, there are a couple of hoops, the remains of the boys basketball court.
"We decided it would be a lot more functional to sell off most of the property and keep part of it and build a new campus," said Mike Sunday, executive director of the foundation. The school sold about 220 acres to Gross and kept 40 acres for itself and then built a brand new, multi-unit brick facility on the "back 40" of Bowling Brook.
Gross' purchase of the farm coincided with the downturn in the construction business -- among his projects are the Home Farm development in Finksburg and other enterprises around Westminster -- so he sent over his crew to start restoration of the farm.
Among the first things Gross did was to apply to have the farm designated as an Agricultural Preservation District, which means that the property can't be developed for five years. During that time the state can eventually buy the development rights, said William Powell, director of Carroll County's farm land preservation program.
The main house will be turned into a bed and breakfast lodge. Gross already has immersed himself in a similar venture in Westminster. He transformed a turn of the century elementary school just off Main Street into the plush Westminster Inn, which includes an executive-type health club, restaurant, pub and 13 bed and breakfast rooms.
Gross lives at the inn and will use Bowling Brook as a weekend retreat.
He intends to turn the farm into a thoroughbred training center "to try to return it to its original state as much as possible," Gross said.
Already he has refurbished the round galloping barn into mint condition; taken down all the old fencing; repaired and painted what is left of the good fencing; built new paddocks; unearthed the 7-furlong training track and put it back into usable condition; started work on restoring the 12 other houses and barns on the property; and plowed up many fields, which will be seeded this spring with timothy hay.
He hopes to unveil the farm during Preakness Week.
So far, Gross hasn't decided just how the center will operate. He will either lease out stalls to trainers or hire his own trainer to oversee the operation.
"Bowling Brook will be a kind of a hotel for horses, hopefully stakes-class horses," Gross said. "The idea is to return it as much as possible to its former glory."