Right (and wrong) on track

Way Back When

Bowie Race Course had 71 years of wins, losses and calamities

November 01, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The wrecking ball began swinging its way two weeks ago through the old wooden, steel and glass grandstand at Bowie Race Course, where for 71 drama-filled years horseplayers cheered winners and mourned losers.

Perfect Park, ironically, won the last race before 12,012 racing fans at the Prince George's County race track, which closed on July 13, 1985.

While departing fans were serenaded over the public address system by a recording of Guy Lombardo's "Thanks for The Memories," the infield board flashed its final message: "Bowie: 1914-1985. Thanks."

Since that time, the old track has been used as a year-round training facility for thoroughbreds and will continue to be.

"Demolition ought to be completed by mid-December," said John L. Passero, senior vice president and superintendent of facilities at Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie, the other day.

Two businessman, James O'Hara and Gadsden Bryan, built the grandstand and other outbuildings with lumber harvested from nearby stands of pine. The mile-long track, first called Prince George's Park, opened to the public on Oct. 1, 1914.

Wagering was handled by 18 bookmakers who did a brisk business "on the lawn" in front of the stands.

Post time was 2:30 p.m., and racegoers arrived aboard special Pennsylvania Railroad race trains that pulled in behind the grandstand or the interurban cars of the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad.

"Upward of 2,500 persons were attracted by the new plant, which is still crude, but in good condition for racing. In the first, third and fourth events scratches were numerous but this was due, the management said, to the late arrival of the horses from Canada and Havre de Grace," The Sun's racing writer, C. Edward Sparrow, reported.

When it opened, Bowie was an "outlaw track," and it wasn't until 1915, when its owners settled their differences with the Maryland Jockey Club, that it was able to hold a licensed meeting.

However, as colorful as the old place was, it seemed to be dogged by bad luck throughout much of its career. Snowstorms, fires and other disasters seemed to come all too frequently.

In its second season of operation, a fierce snowstorm halted racing. In 1927, the original clubhouse and grandstand were consumed by the first of many fires. Fifty-five horses perished in a 1956 barn fire, followed by one in 1964 that killed 11 horses.

"Tracks like to promote themselves. Hialeah promoted its palm trees and flowers while Saratoga its charm. Bowie dealt in adversity. You never knew what was going to happen next," recalled Joseph B. Kelly, retired Washington Star racing editor and track historian.

"And when Bowie moved to winter racing [in 1957], they really put themselves out on a limb for trouble. It was always a gamble. It was even a risky business when the track opened April 1 during the 1930s and 1940s," he said.

As it turned out, Bowie's first official winter meet in 1957 proceeded without cancellations.

The following season, however, the Blizzard of 1958 swept into Maryland. Despite storm warnings, 13,554 souls arrived aboard race trains, buses and private autos on Feb, 15, 1958.

By the end of the eighth-race finale, the crowds began to swarm about the waiting trains while others found their cars snowbound in the parking lot. Some 5,000 spectators, horsemen and track personnel were stranded. "That was the night the clubhouse abounded with dice games; diabetics and heart attack victims taxed the dispensary facilities; thieves found good working conditions with 1,200 abandoned cars and some male horseplayers showed their true colors by pushing women aside to get aboard a special train, the only sure return to the outside world," reported The Sun.

In 1961, the southbound Philadelphia Racing Special, an 11-car race train with two locomotives on the head end, entered the racetrack spur at a high rate of speed and jumped the rails.

Six people were killed and nearly 243 were injured in the wreck. Those not injured, climbed over those who were hurt or dying, determined not to miss post time.

"The grandstand annex burned down that very same day. A friend of mine was on one of the cars that derailed and was slightly injured. The railroad gave him a settlement of $2,500 dollars, and he said it was the `best day he ever had at Bowie,'" Kelly said.

Kelly would call Marty Meyer, the track superintendent, for the day's scratches during the winter meets.

"I'd ask him what the temperature was and Meyer, whom we called the `Snowfighter,' would reply, `It's warming up. It was zero and now it's 4 degrees.'"

At Bowie, "it wasn't uncommon to see six race specials filling the sidings because there was no racing in New York. So, the bettors came to Bowie," he said.

Because of the track's rural surroundings, out-of-state bettors had the feeling they were "camping out," said Kelly. "However, they had no idea they were only 20 miles from the White House."

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