At Laurel Park, neighbors celebrate century of glamor and grit

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.)

In July 1969, a month before the Woodstock concert in New York, it hosted the Laurel Pop Festival, a two-day rock-and-roll blowout featuring acts like Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and Sly and the Family Stone, and three weeks after that, Count Basie, Dizzie Gillespie, Roberta Flack and others headlined the Laurel Jazz Festival. (Old fliers, ticket stubs and a concert program help recall that era.)

And as longtime locals might remember, Jack Kent Cooke's Washington Redskins tried to move their operations to the track during the early 1990s. (One photo shows Jim Lachey, a member of the celebrated "Hogs" offensive line, signing autographs during a publicity appearance at Laurel Park.)

Residents worried about potential congestion and other problems complained so loudly that the idea was shelved.

"The town wouldn't allow it," says Lubieniecki, a public relations professional who has lived in the historic downtown district for 20 years.

Nor has the community always been unanimous in its support of horse racing. At several junctures, residents have tried to encourage more "family friendly" entertainment at the site.

"What about horse riding lessons? Horse shows? Displays or fairs involving other animals?" one commenter writes in a display that asks guests to imagine other uses for the track.

For the most part, though, it's clear that the Sport of Kings is, well, king at Laurel Park.

A pair of tiny, foot-shaped wooden molds from 1953 recalls the legendary Willie Shoemaker; A.W. Kroop and Sons of Laurel, a shoemaking company that remains open to this day, used them to hand-craft boots for the 4-foot-11-inch jockey.

A red uniform evokes Linda Penkala, the first female rider to make the program at Laurel Park, who wore the outfit at the 1982 Ladies Cup in Japan.

Penkala, who still lives in Laurel, remembers male bettors tossing sexist gibes her way even as she sat in the Winner's Circle — moments of discrimination that also belong to the track's history.

"It's a hard thing for a woman to play a man's sport," she recalls. "But just because you don't possess a certain body part doesn't mean you can't ride a horse. Those were great days, and we worked hard to succeed."

If there's any doubt about what might be considered the track's golden era, the exhibition erases it, dedicating a full display to the Washington, D.C., International Stakes, a 12-furlong race on turf held annually between 1952 and 1994.

The brainchild of track president John Schapiro, son of Baltimore industrialist and longtime track owner Morris Schapiro, it was the first international live race held in the U.S., drawing top horses from Europe and pitting them against their American counterparts.

"Today, international sporting events are no big deal, but that was the first intercontinental horse race," Baker says. "That tells you quite a bit about that event, but it also tells you about that time as well."

The International drew ambassadors and entertainment stars from around the world while becoming one of those events at which A-Listers wanted to "wear the latest fashions and see and be seen," Lubieniecki says.

Photos of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, megastar Elizabeth Taylor and a grinning speaker of the House, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, underscore the point.

In 1958, two colts from the Soviet Union, Garnir and Zaryad, appeared in the race, the first time Soviet horses had raced on American soil — an event that, to some, signified that hostile nations could indeed connect at the height of the Cold War. (A vintage photo shows Zaryad in colors trimmed with the hammer and sickle.) A record 40,276 fans watched as Garnir finished fifth and Zaryad 10th.

But the words of sportswriter John Scheinman, included here, might capture best what was magic about the series and in some ways the exhibit that celebrates it.

"They came from all over the world," Scheinman, who now works part time as a copy editor for Baltimore Sun Media Group, wrote of the first running. "The place was packed. Packed! There were dignitaries and they would introduce special politicians. … And it was pageantry. And it was just marvelous. Marvelous! It was a high-minded view of racing."

Unwritten ending

Organizers knew the glamorous element of racing would attract the public to the exhibit, but soon after they started planning five years ago, they realized it should focus equally on the people who work on the "back side" — in the barns and stables, away from the track and the betting areas — and the impact the track has had on the town of Laurel.

"And They're Off!" teems with the personalities of the trainers, grooms, exercisers, hot walkers, stable boys and others, past and present, who spend their lives behind the scenes, making the visible stuff happen.

"As a group, they have really strong loyalties to what they do," says Baker, one of the researchers who spent hours interviewing current employees of the track. "They really believe in what they do. When you think of horse racing, you might think of glamour and money, but everyone loved the animals."

That love has had a big impact on Laurel, a community of about 25,000 people at the intersection of Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties that came to life as a cotton-mill village in the early 1800s.

It emerged later as a typical "company town," including the Patuxent Manufacturing company store and company-owned tenements for the workers and their families.

Once the track arrived and grew, so did Laurel. During the attraction's heyday, as many as a third of the businesses in town served the track directly or indirectly, from bootmakers to veterinarians and peddlers of oats and hay. Horse people from far and wide moved to Laurel so they would no longer have to spend the racing season journeying from track to track.

Still, like the industry itself today, "And They're Off!" has a bittersweet taste. In November 2010, even as exhibit organizers were finalizing details, the Maryland Jockey Club announced the end of live racing at the track. A month later, industry groups and the state came together to extend live racing through 2011.

Museum staff have had to update panels and adjust on the fly. "We knew we'd either be celebrating the track or mourning its closing," Lubieniecki says. Even now, the last placard guests are likely to see as they exit bears ominous words: "The Future of Laurel Park Beyond This Year Is Uncertain."

Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, says that's accurate. The state legislature and Gov. Martin O'Malley have asked racing industry leaders to develop a five-year plan by Dec. 1, but no one knows for certain whether Laurel Park will be open for business next year.

"It's incumbent on us to craft a plan that recognizes the past and promotes the future," says Chuckas, who worked closely with the museum as they planned. "All parties involved recognize the importance of Laurel Park, and we'll explore every option available to us."

That's all right by Penkala, a woman who still drives by the race track every so often "just to get a whiff of the barns."

In her view, a display like "And They're Off!" can't hurt.

"I think [the museum's] goal was to let people see what racing is, to see its rich tradition and the effect this little town of Laurel has had on it," she says. "It's so much more than the gambling, the money and the slots. Whether or not you like those, it's still an incredible sport."


If you go

What: "And They're Off! 100 Years at Laurel Park," a collection of photos, artifacts and memorabilia celebrating the race track's 100th birthday

Where: Laurel Historical Society and Museum, 817 Main St., Laurel

When: Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Sundays, 1-4 p.m., through December.

Admission: Free

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