A track unlike any other, Bowie could soon be closed

Officials will meet Monday to consider the fate of the quirky track that attracted hardcore bettors and only the most hardy jockeys

November 27, 2010|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

On Feb. 2, 1961, at 1 p.m., a train carrying fans to Bowie Race Course derailed near the race track, killing six and injuring more than 200. Undaunted, a number of passengers scrambled over the dead and wounded, smashed windows and hurried on foot to Bowie, in 15-degree cold, to place their bets before the first race.

One man walked to the track with a broken collarbone. Another limped out of the woods nearby carrying a bag of money and one of his shoes.

"I saw people with blood all over them, standing there (at the mutual windows) betting," trainer King Leatherbury, 77, recalled. "That's what you call hard-core horseplayers."

Once, Bowie elicited such passion from the fans it courted. They came from all over the East to a blue-collar, unpretentious, no-frills track.

But when those crowds dwindled, Bowie dropped racing and became a training center in 1985. Now, a quarter of a century later, it seems likely the track will close for good.

On Monday, the Maryland Racing Commission is expected to consider the Maryland Jockey Club's operating plan for 2011, which calls for Bowie to be shuttered completely.

"How saddened I am by the prospects of it going by the wayside," said Chris McCarron, a Hall of Fame jockey who got his start at Bowie in 1974. "All good things must come to an end, but (the track) literally has been dying a slow death. The clock started ticking 25 years ago."

Now, four years shy of turning 100, Bowie appears to have run out of time.

"There's a lot of history there," said Mario Pino, 49, a veteran jockey on the Maryland circuit. "And a lot of ghosts."

Innovative, yet often primative

In 1914, Babe Ruth pitched his first game for the Baltimore Orioles. A horse named Holiday won the Preakness. And, on a sandy patch of land carved out of a tobacco farm deep in the pines in Prince George's County, Bowie Race Course opened. Fittingly, on Oct. 1, a filly named Sand Pocket won the inaugural race.

Why build a track in Bowie? The town sat almost midway between Baltimore and Washington, on a railway line that would drop bettors a couple of furlongs from the racecourse.

From the start, Maryland's youngest major track proved innovative. It was the first sports facility in the country to install a public address system (1927); the first track in Maryland to require doping tests (1934); and the first in the state to launch the daily double (1935).

At the same time, Bowie could be crude and primitive. As late as 1927, the grounds crew used horse-drawn sprinkling machines to wet the dirt track. It took 18 years for officials to enclose the stretch and keep dogs and other wildlife — as well as inebriated fans — from straying onto the track. And, until 1947, the jockeys' quarters were a nightmare: one shower stall for 50 riders.

Bowie was a working man's track, a homely-looking venue catering to stogie-chomping railbirds dubbed "The Bowie Breed." That Bowie dealt mostly in winter racing exacerbated its stark appearance.

"How nice can you make a place look if you can't plant flowers?" said Gregg McCarron, Chris' brother and a former Maryland jockey.

Driving to Bowie for the first time, in 1979, Pino thought he'd made a wrong turn.

"I'm going further and further into these woods, and there's nothing but pines, and I'm thinking, 'How can there be a race track out here?' " said Pino, who won the first of his 6,297 victories at Bowie. "Then, out of nowhere, this track pops up."

It was a Brigadoon for devout horseplayers, said Joe Kelly, a Maryland racing historian.

"Bowie was an outpost. Going there was an adventure," said Kelly, 92. "Accomodations weren't plush, but the track was good, and horses ran pretty consistently over it."

Bad weather seldom canceled the card. Track officials adopted the mantra, "When it snows, Bowie goes." Mud. Sleet. Floods. Fog. Horses plowed through muck and mire.

" Hialeah has palm trees and Saratoga has its elms, but Bowie dealt in adversity," Kelly said.

Once, in 1975, when his mount stumbled in the slop, jockey Danny Wright fell in mud so deep that he was buried alive.

"Where's Danny? Where the hell is he at?" Eddie Gaudet, his trainer, yelled.

They found Wright lying face down beneath several inches of ooze.

"That [position] created a little pocket of air for me to breathe," said Wright, 64, now chief steward at Charles Town. "What can I say? I'm a mudder."

Horsemen had fussed about the cold since 1957, when Bowie began winter racing — the first track in the East to do so.

"I remember riding past snowdrifts three feet high that were pushed to the side," said Sandy Hawley, 61, one of America's leading riders in the 1970s.

"All you could do was dress warmly and hope you didn't have to get on too many horses in a row," said Donnie Miller, who rode at Bowie for four years in the 1980s.

One icy day in 1973, as he saddled a horse in the paddock, a young trainer learned how cold the windswept track could be.

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