Fans plan a tribute to racetrack's glory days

Museum: Horse lovers hope a racing complex project will help put `The Graw' in Havre de Grace back on the fast track.

March 16, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

On a muddy spring day in 1948, when Saggy held the last length of the Chesapeake Trial to upset up-and-coming thoroughbred legend Citation, a local kid, Allen Fair, was in the crowd at Havre de Grace Racetrack, watching the thunderous finish.

Fair, then a horse lover of 14, was a fixture at the track. "I used to climb over the fence and walk horses and then climb over the fence and go to school," he said.

`The Graw," as the track was informally called, was one of horse racing's gems, celebrating wins from 1912 to 1950 with the likes of Man O' War, Seabiscuit - and Saggy, which would be the last horse for nearly two years to beat eventual Triple Crown winner Citation.

Today, Fair is part of a movement of horse lovers who want to bring a taste of those glory days back to Havre de Grace in a $1.2 million thoroughbred racing museum, equine retirement center and horse park.

"I'm very enthused," said Fair, whose Havre de Grace real estate office is filled with photos of Citation, the track and duck decoys. "We have the history here. We have the great location."

Led by Chairman John Bowers, the Maryland Thoroughbred Racing Foundation has made a strong showing since its start in November. It has won support among state lawmakers for a $400,000 bond bill, a slice of proposed slots profits and a donation of land from one of Harford County's biggest developers.

"It says to me that even though the industry has been in continuous decline in recent years, there's still a great tradition in the state of Maryland, and the underlying spirit is still there," Bowers said. "Talk about this project, and you can see the sparkle in people's eyes."

Bringing the complex to his hometown would be an extra win for Bowers, a former jockey who worked in the racing industry for more than three decades. "The two great loves I have in my life, other than my family," he said, "are the city of Havre de Grace and the thoroughbred horse."

He envisions a project that would rival the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.

"We're on the fast track, but we've had a lot of help," he said.

One of the project's strongest supporters is Havre de Grace Mayor David R. Craig, who remembers "if you went somewhere and they asked you where you were from, anyone who was older would say, `Oh, is there still a racetrack there?'"

When he was a college student, a Maryland history research project at Towson University sealed Craig's interest in the track, which was opened in 1912 by New York racetrack manager Edward Burke in large part because pari-mutuel betting was legal in Harford County. Bettors traveled by train from New York and Philadelphia, Craig said.

After completing his research at Towson, Craig said he gathered oral histories from people who visited and worked at The Graw before it closed in 1950, after New Jersey authorized racing and the New York-Philadelphia crowd chose to bet closer to home.

The property later became a Maryland National Guard vehicle maintenance shop.

"I think it's long overdue," Craig said of the museum.

The three-phase project calls for a thoroughbred racing museum and equine retirement center off Interstate 95, where developer Clark Turner is donating about 2 1/2 acres from his mixed-use commercial and residential community at Bulle Rock.

An agreement between the foundation and the Steppingstone Museum for the horse park would create access to trails on the museum's 200 acres and adjacent Susquehanna State Park, Bowers said.

He envisions the entry to the museum as having bronze statues of racehorses galloping over a glassy pond; lushly landscaped museum grounds and six-stall equine center and paddocks; and the 12,000-square-foot museum building filled with interactive areas, a trophy room and programs.

His marketing strategy also includes tying in tours of local thoroughbred farms.

Bowers said the museum and retirement center could open by spring of next year.

The project could bring 40 to 50 jobs to Harford County, said foundation member and real estate developer Cecil Hill.

Bowers said the Kentucky Horse Park generates revenues of close to $1 million a year - and it's in an out-of-the-way place. He estimates Havre de Grace's central location would help the museum-park complex generate more profits.

The group has also stepped on a few toes of folks in the horse industry who have considered similar projects in Annapolis or the Baltimore area, at Pimlico, Sagamore Farm or Shawan Downs. And that is to be expected, Bowers said.

With horsemen, "you have an industry that's part of the problem," Bowers said. "Asking them to be part of the solution takes a little longer."

Harford Del. Mary-Dulany James of Havre de Grace said she likes the way the foundation is mixing the city's "really fine racing history" with Turner's Bulle Rock development, as well as creating opportunities to stage equestrian shows and therapeutic riding events.

James - who lives on the family farm next to the old track - said the project's other appeal is its goal to renew people's love of racing.

In the slots debates so far, she said, "we really haven't heard the horse track owners talking about bringing in new fans."

She said prospects for the bond legislation, with budget constraints, are a little uncertain, but "even if it may not get the nod this year" the groundwork has been laid.

On a sunny afternoon recently, Hill and Bowers noted signs of the times for the racing industry: billboards on Maryland highways extolling slots at Charles Town, W.Va., and at Dover Downs. Tracks are still there, too, they said. "They don't say horse racing," Bowers said. "There's money there, but it's not really furthering the racing industry. That's what we want to do."

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