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Laurel Park celebrates 100th birthday

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Deep in the bowels of Laurel Park, beneath the oval where Secretariat, Seabiscuit and Barbaro once tread, runs a tunnel. It's a long-forgotten passage that bigwigs once used to escape the raucous crowds above.

Queen Elizabeth II, who raced a horse at Laurel, passed here. So did Cary Grant, J. Edgar Hoover and Tip O'Neill.

Elizabeth Taylor took the tunnel, en route to the winner's circle to present the trophy at the 1976 Washington D.C. International. In those 60 yards, folks recalled, the actress stopped to fix her hair. Twice.

In its heyday, Laurel was a magnet for dignitaries and celebrities, who flocked to the track to bet on the horses, and be seen. In 1958, an announced 40,276 shoehorned into the stands for the D.C. International, a record attendance for the weathered track, which celebrates its centennial Saturday.

But crowds have dwindled, prestige races have disappeared and Laurel needed a state bailout to even open this year. Like Pimlico Race Course, the state's other remaining thoroughbred mile track, Laurel now loses millions of dollars annually and faces an uncertain future.

"Are Laurel's best days behind it? Never discount the resiliency of Maryland racing," said Vinnie Perrone, an editor of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine. "There's a fastidiousness and a vitality of spirit about people who breed and race horses in this state. If Laurel Park can weather this storm [slot machines, money woes, competition from other gambling venues], it could have some pretty good days, moving forward."

Laurel's debut, Oct. 2, 1911, was not without dispute. Local Methodist and Presbyterian clergymen had preached against local racing, saying it would "corrupt the morals of the community," but gave in after hearing how much revenue the track might bring.

Pimlico's owners opposed the track, fearing Laurel would siphon bettors away from Old Hilltop, which also had fall racing and had opened in 1870. Officials there threatened to bar any stable owners who ran their horses at Laurel, but grudgingly backed down.

Carved from a spongy patch of farmland, the race course cost $100,000 and was considered chic from the start. Trains from Baltimore and Washington discharged race goers within 100 feet of a grandstand lined with 3,000 chairs and 48 private boxes. The backstretch, with stalls for 600 thoroughbreds, expanded quickly. The track itself was touted as the only one in the East wide enough to start an 18-horse race.

Innovation was the rule early on. Both steeplechase and harness races were held. Between races, in the infield, bicyclists entertained patrons by performing a high-wire act, 100 feet in the air.

Ladies Day was a hit. Women received free admission ($1) and satin-covered souvenir programs. Alongside the grandstand, T.A. Gray's Band played waltzes, fox trots and a rollicking piece called the "Laurel Park March."

"Laurel was a place that had opulence," Perrone said. "Even the New York Times took note of it, before 1920. It was cast as an exciting destination."

Five thousand fans streamed into Laurel on opening day, ignoring the soggy footing left from several days of rain.

"Mud was everywhere," The Sun wrote. But a horse named Lawton Wiggins won the feature race, the Baltimore Handicap, in "a corking good finish that made the day well worth the 23-minute [train] ride from Baltimore."

Attendance averaged 3,500 daily for the first week and kept growing. Laurel went dark during World War I, handing the place to the army, which trained soldiers and pitched tents in the infield. But racing roared back in 1919 with the arrival of Sir Barton, the first of five Triple Crown winners to run there. Ten thousand fans shouted approval as Sir Barton came from fourth place, in the stretch, to win the Maryland Handicap.

War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1942), Secretariat (1972) and Affirmed (1977) also won races at Laurel before applauding throngs. So did Seabiscuit, who captured the Laurel Stakes, in a dead heat, in 1937.

But it was a man, not a horse, who brought world-wide acclaim to the track. In 1952, Laurel president John Schapiro introduced the Washington D.C. International, an all-star race that would pit America's top thoroughbreds against the best in the world.

Suddenly, Laurel was awash in patriotism fueled by statesmen, foreign princes and the like.

"It became the 'high society' track," said Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board and a onetime Laurel publicist. "The International made Laurel the place to see, and be seen. It was the social event of the fall season, and it brought everyone out from Washington. The track was bathed in glory."

Schapiro was derided for suggesting that horses from other climes could compete with America's talent, said his widow, Eleanor Russell, of Monkton.

"People said, 'No way will this work.' Then foreign horses won the first two Internationals, and the race took off," she said. "Imagine our great immodesty in this country, that nothing could beat us."

The International succumbed in 1995 and was succeeded by the Breeders' Cup. The U.S. won 22 of those 43 races. Jockey Sandy Hawley won it twice, in 1975 and 1976.

"To me, it was the biggest turf race in North America at the time," Hawley said. "Henry Kissinger presented me with one trophy, and Elizabeth Taylor handed me the other. I was kind of flabbergasted to meet either one of them."

The first jockey to win 500 races or more in a year, Hawley won No. 500 at Laurel, in 1973. One year later, Chris McCarron broke Hawley's record — at Laurel. In 1989, Kent Desormeaux passed McCarron's mark — at Laurel. Desormeaux's record (598 victories) still stands.

So does Laurel's grandstand. For now.

"Laurel still has one of the safest dirt tracks in the country, and one of the best turf courses," Peddicord said. "The pity of it is that they could consider closing it down."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Laurel Park highlights

Oct. 2, 1911: Laurel first opens its gates for a 26-day meet. The first race, run by three horses over 51/2 furlongs, is won by Royal Onyx.

Nov. 11, 1958: A announced crowd of 40,276, the largest ever to attend a Maryland horse race, sees Sailor's Guide (Australia) take the seventh Washington D.C. International when Tudor Era (United States) is disqualified from first. Russian horses, entered for the first time, finish sixth and 10th (last).

Nov. 3, 1964: Thirty-four thoroughbreds perish in a barn fire at Laurel, the worst loss of lives in Maryland racing history. The fire started when a stablehand dropped a lit cigarette.

Nov. 11, 1964: Kelso, the only five-time Horse of the Year, wins the Washington D.C. International and sets an American record for 11/2 miles on turf.

Aug. 13, 1983: A week after appearing at New York's Shea Stadium, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel give a reunion concert before a huge crowd at Laurel Park.

Oct. 18, 1986: The Maryland Million, a nine-race, $1 million card established by sportscaster Jim McKay, debuts at Laurel. The $200,000 Maryland Classic is won by Herat.

Nov. 30, 1989: Jockey Kent Desormeaux wins his 547th race for the year at Laurel, breaking the world record, en route to a 598-victory season.

Nov. 19, 2005: Barbaro wins the Laurel Futurity, a prestigious race for 2-year-olds.

Mike Klingaman

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