At Laurel Park, neighbors celebrate century of glamor and grit

Museum exhibit celebrates 100 years of life at Laurel Park

October 01, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Just about every Friday morning, Karen Lubieniecki takes a leisurely stroll to Laurel Park, finds a place along a railing at the nearly empty racetrack and spends an hour or so watching the horses exercise as the sun climbs the sky.

It isn't that she's a horse racing aficionado. It's just that she appreciates a meaningful place.

"You don't have to know the ins and outs of racing to love that atmosphere and take in the beauty of those animals," says Lubieniecki, a history buff and a senior staff member at the Laurel Historical Society just a few furlongs down the road.

Lubieniecki and her colleagues have sought to communicate the track's importance to the community through "And They're Off! 100 Years at Laurel Park," a lively exhibition commemorating the centennial of the racetrack, which opened for business on Oct. 2, 1911 — a century ago this weekend.

The collection — two rooms packed with historic pictures, memorabilia, informational graphics, trivia and more — traces the history of the park from its origins as a county fairground in the early 20th century through its two most recent controversies, the row over slots in Anne Arundel County and the near-closure of Laurel Park a year ago.

For those who crave information, it's there: the top races and big purses of the early years (1911-1947); races run and upgrades made during the Schapiro family reign (1950-1982); and reflections on superstar horses that ran here, including1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, Seabiscuit (1938), Secretariat (1972) and Seattle Slew (1976).

But the collection's core appeal is the way that, like Lubieniecki, a guest needn't know a jockey from a juvenile to catch the vibe of the track and what it has meant to employees, visitors, writers and members of the Laurel community for 10 decades.

"One of our thoughts was to offer an introduction to anybody who may not be intimately familiar with the horse racing world and to draw them in," Lubienicki said during a recent private tour.

Match races

Enter the circa-1840 gristmill that houses the museum, and you'll spot a placard on the wall that asks a few basic questions: "Can you imagine racing 100 years ago? What might it have been like? What would have been the same? What would have been different?"

The queries — posed by a cartoon dog named Diven, the historical society's mascot — are aimed at kids, but they frame the collection for grown-ups, too. Before you know it, the show starts turning up answers.

In the beginning, live racing was just one of the attractions Laurel Park had to offer. The place was born as part of an annual event called the Four Corners County Fair.

One of the most striking black-and-whites in the collection — courtesy of photographer Bert Sadler, who worked in the early 1900s and left 1,300 glass plates behind — shows a woman balancing on a tightrope 70 feet above the infield. A second Sadler print shows visitors in Victorian garb — ladies in elaborately draped skirts, men in suitcoats shaped at the waist — milling around exhibition tents.

There was racing, too, of course, and in some ways it was different: One photo shows sulkies circling a track now known exclusively for thoroughbred racing.

In other ways, as the exhibition shows, some things never change. A grocery entrepreneur named James Butler bought Laurel Park in 1914, and during his tenure, a string of high-profile match races — winner-take-all tilts between two top horses — became the talk of the sport.

On Oct. 17, 1917, the first foreign-born winner of the Kentucky Derby, Omar Khayyam, faced down reigning Belmont champion Hourless in a $10,000 match that drew 20,000 people. (Hourless won.) Laurel Park topped itself later that month when Billy Kelly, a swift but ungainly 2-year-old, topped Eternal, bagging $20,000.

Then as now, big personalities left their mark on the sport.

Billy Kelly's owner, a dashing, Canadian-born railroad magnate named Commander J.K.L. Ross, made a public show of donating his winnings to the Red Cross in support of its World War I relief efforts, according to one exhibition graphic.

Exciting as they were in racing terms, events at the track were intersecting with life beyond the infield.

"As we worked on this exhibition, we saw how Laurel Park touches many different aspects of national and even world history," says Lindsey Baker, the historical society's executive director.

Racehorse diplomacy

The track's first century has involved more than horse racing.

In 1918, U.S. troops pitched their tents in the infield when Laurel Park became Camp Laurel, a training site for soldiers in the Army Corps of Engineers. (One photo, property of the museum, shows a sandy-haired young officer on the steps of the timing stand.)

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