Magna plan prompts fear, uncertainty in Bowie

200 race-industry workers, as well as horses, would lose their housing

September 09, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Jamie V. Salazar heard the news on the radio yesterday morning: The Bowie Training Center where he lives and works could close its gates in May.

"I don't know where we would go," Salazar said. "People are worried. We want to stay here. Where would we live?"

Salazar has been a groom at Bowie for about eight years. But as he sat with his back against a stable wall alongside five other grooms, all he could do was shake his head. He doesn't have a plan; he doesn't know where he would go. And neither, he said, do the 200 or so workers who live at Bowie and care for the horses.

On Wednesday, officials from Magna Entertainment Corp., which owns the Bowie facility, as well as Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, said they wanted to sell the 178-acre training track as part of a plan that would cut the number of racing days in the state by nearly half.

Under the plan, which needs to be approved by the General Assembly, the people and horses at Bowie would move to new Laurel Park accommodations that would be built with part of the proceeds from the sale of the training center. However, the plan also calls for no racing in the state - save for an eight-day meet at Timonium during the state fair - from May 21 through Nov. 2.

"It is going to be devastating for much of the horse racing community," said Tom Bowman, a former president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"I'm not defending or criticizing the race track ... from a financial, economic perspective it is absolutely in the best interest of the race track [to close Bowie]," he said. "It is a business. They need to cut costs."

However, he said the closing would be another step in the slow decline of horse racing in Maryland.

"The writing has been on the wall for a long time," Bowman said. "[Trainers and owners] are going to have to completely change the way they live or they are going to have to leave."

The Bowie facility provides essentially rent-free housing for grooms and horses in Maryland racing. Magna pays for the maintenance and upkeep of the facilities. In return, the owners run their horses at Pimlico and Laurel. The arrangement is fairly standard in horse racing, Bowman said.

But, if the plan goes through and the horse owners and grooms suddenly need to scrape around for housing from season to season, many could be forced out of the business or out of the state, Bowman said.

Longtime trainer Edmund Gaudet couldn't keep the emotion out of his voice when he spoke of the potential impact.

"At age 75, I'm half literate," he said. "Where would I get a job? I'd have to go somewhere else, and it's heartbreaking."

Another trainer, Anthony Aguirre, a fifth-generation Maryland horseman who keeps 12 horses at the Bowie Training Center, said, "I'd have to leave Maryland. I'd be another trainer leaving Maryland."

Aguirre remembers when there were trees, not houses, next to the facility. Many believe that under the new plan the land would be sold to developers.

Real estate prices in Prince George's County are rising, noted Sylvester J. Vaughns, a member of the county planning board.

"People are just constantly developing there or wanting to develop there," Vaughns said. "Bowie is a hot area. If anybody thinks it is available, someone will try to develop it."

Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson estimated that, depending on topography, more than 500 houses could replace the stables and the track.

For racing enthusiasts, those new houses would stand on hallowed ground. In its heyday, tens of thousands of people jammed into the grandstand to cheer for thoroughbreds at Bowie Race Course.

Opened in October 1914 next to a train line, the track was a popular destination for race-goers throughout the Northeast. This was particularly true in the winter months, when most other tracks were dark.

But the track was closed as a racing venue in 1985 - even then the racing industry was stumbling. The owners of Pimlico and Laurel, who had bought Bowie in 1983, said consolidating the state's racing dates at the other two tracks would help the industry.

Since then, there has been a lot of talk about closing the training facility. So much talk that trainers questioned whether it would really close this time.

"I'm speculating on speculations here," Aguirre said. "We don't know what will actually happen."

Officials also stressed that Magna's plan was not yet official.

"There is the suggestion that it could be a strategic decision in order to influence the slots discussion," said Robinson.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has tried - and failed - for the past three years to push legislation through the General Assembly that would legalize slot machines at the state's racetracks. In the surrounding states of West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, patrons can or will soon be able to gamble at the tracks.

Closing the Bowie facility will certainly affect the industry, but Robinson said it is unclear how much the nonracing public would miss it.

"The sense of attachment to the facility has changed quite a bit since the track closed," he said. "A lot of people never knew it as an active race track."

Sun staff writers Chris Yakaitis and Sandra McKee contributed to this article.

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