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A track unlike any other, Bowie could soon be closed

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.

"While breathing on the bit of the bridle, to warm it up to put in the horse's mouth, my tongue stuck to the frozen bit," Ross Peddicord said. "I thought it would pull all the skin off my tongue."

The horse finished in the money, said Peddicord, "but it was a defining moment for me." He quit training and became the racing writer for the Evening Sun.

Deep down, jockeys reveled in their misery.

"Bowie proved that the rugged could make it," said Gregg McCarron, 62, who first rode at The Track In The Pines in 1970 and stayed for 15 years. "Jockeys from Florida would come here without enough warm clothes for the race and leave saying, 'I can't wait to get out of here.' "

Track officials acknowledged the riders' efforts, Gregg McCarron said.

"If we rode in snow, or an ice storm, they'd throw a big party for the jockeys after the last race," he said. "Of course, we couldn't eat that much, but it's the thought that counts. You felt appreciated."

Winter racing created a bond among Bowie's jockeys, those who rode there agreed.

"There's a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect, when it's 15 degrees and you're going 40 miles an hour and your life depends on the guy next to you not doing something wrong," said Miller, 47.

The kinship spilled over into Bowie's dressing room. Pranks were rampant. Preparing to race, jockeys might find their silks mixed up, or shaving cream in their riding boots.

"One rider always wore real nice street clothes," Gregg McCarron said. "When he dressed, after racing, he would jump up on the bench beside his locker and pull on his pants, so that the cuffs didn't touch the floor. Then he would step into his shoes that his valet had set on the bench, and jump down."

One day, unbeknownst to the jockey, Gregg McCarron nailed those shoes to the bench. On his dismount, the guy fell on his face.

Riders weren't the only ones at risk from the elements. In 1964, on Opening Day of the winter meet, snow tumbled off the roof of the grandstand after the second race, toppling bettors and injuring a dozen, none seriously.

There was an upside to winter racing, said Miller:

"Because of the cold, not many (bettors) came down to the fence to call you names, if you rode a bad race."

Eleven times through the years, the track was ravaged by fires that killed 104 horses and destroyed dozens of stables. In 1946, two days before Opening Day, a fire wiped out 21 thoroughbreds and a 56-stall barn. Bowie muddled on.

It quickly forged a name as a cold-weather oval. In March 1930, Bowie was the first track in the country to open for the spring season. More than 20,000 fans attended. But those numbers cowed beside the size of the crowd that piled into the place on Nov. 21, 1941.

The Sun wrote:

"Sardines rest in roomy palaces compared to the 30,000 followers of the thoroughbred who squeezed their way into this race course … for the largest turnout in the track's history."

A five-mile backup ensued, with some patrons parking a mile away.

Like many tracks, Bowie closed during World War II, albeit grudgingly. Despite gas rationing, racing continued through November 1942, though, to save fuel, trains bypassed the racecourse and discharged fans at the whistle-stop in town.

"Horseplayers are a little crazy," The Sun wrote, "but few are goofy enough to walk 3 1/2 miles from the Bowie railroad station to a track to see a bunch of animals chase each other around."

A handful of people did just that.

The war's end brought crowds back in droves. Two trains packed with racegoers left Baltimore's Penn Station daily, around noon, bound for Bowie. Track officials weren't always prepared. On Opening Day in 1947, some 500 fans were stilll in line, waiting to place bets, when the daily double windows closed. A year later, on the same day, the track ran out of programs 30 minutes before the first race as nearly 17,000 people milled about.

By 1950, racing interest was so high that WBAL televised Bowie's feature race daily.

Who went to Bowie? Everyone from the hard-boiled horse fans from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, to unsavory gamblers.

"Persons chased off other Maryland tracks were welcome at Bowie," The Sun's Snowden Carter wrote in 1952.

A brief, golden era

Even track officials could be characters. Named Bowie president in 1952, Larry MacPhail had held the post for barely a year when he got the boot for cursing other horsemen and reportedly assaulting a state trooper. In that short span, MacPhail, a onetime baseball executive and Hall of Famer whose grandson, Andy, is the Orioles' general manager, oversaw a $2 million remodeling of the track.

For Bowie, these were the best of times. The track provided engraved program holders for patrons sitting in box seats, and uniformed attendants to take their wagers. On Opening Day, you might see FBI director J. Edgar Hoover seated in the dining room, or hear a program of light classical music piped over loudspeakers prior to the first race.

Track regulars weren't fooled by the frills, said Leatherbury who, while attending Maryland in the 1950s, would ride up from College Park after class to catch the ninth race.

"What a bargain that was," Leatherbury said. "By that time of day, you got free parking. You could pick up both a Daily Racing Form and a program that someone had thrown away. And since you'd only get to bet on one race, you couldn't lose your shirt."

Leatherbury became a trainer and saddled horses at Bowie for 26 years. Still active, he is the country's third leading trainer all-time in victories (6,311).

Who raced at Bowie? Jockeys like Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker. Thoroughbreds like Kelso, five times U.S. Horse of the Year in the 1960s, and Kauai King, the Maryland-bred colt who won both the 1966 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

"It was just pure racing there," said Chris McCarron, 55. "I can still see those die-hard fans, with cigars in their mouths, those old hats on their heads and the Racing Forms rolled up in their hands."

Chris McCarron, who rode four years at Bowie, said, "I'd rate the course way down on a scale of 'picturesque,' but way up on a scale of safety. I'd venture that it was one of the safest of all tracks for horses to run on – and I've ridden on about 70 tracks."

But safety doesn't pay bills. Both attendance and betting at Bowie began falling in 1970. Atlantic City casinos siphoned off out-of-town gamblers, and other tracks introduced winter racing. On July 13, 1985, Bowie ran its last race. Fans sang "Auld Lang Syne" and "Thanks For The Memories." Each was given a vial of dirt from the track, as a keepsake.

Several years ago, Chris McCarron drove past Bowie for what he knew was one last look.

"The grandstand was still there, with its red-and-white vertical stripes," he said. "So many memories rushed back: The tractors that ran all night long to keep the track from freezing up in winter. The crossing guard who stopped traffic, so jockeys could ride back to the stables across the only road in and out of the track. The racing programs that, for some reason, were stapled at the top, instead of at the sides, so you had to flip the pages up."

McCarron paused.

"There'll never be another like it," he said.

mklingaman@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Hanah Cho and Sun researchers Paul McCardell and Carol Julian contributed to this story.

Bowie Timeline

June 24, 1914 – Ground is broken for Bowie Race Course.

Oct. 1, 1914 – Racing begins.

1943-45 – World War II closes Bowie.

Sept. 15, 1953 – A jet fighter plane armed with rockets explodes in midair over the track and crashes in the woods nearby, narrowly missing motorist Hattie Maenner, the racing secretary. No one is injured

March 9, 1955 – Officials discover a cabin cruiser floating on the infield lake at Bowie. No one knows how it got there.

Feb. 8, 1958 –More than 18,000 fans – the largest Opening Day crowd in Bowie history – brave sub-freezing temperatures in "b-b-bitter winds," The Sun writes.

Feb. 15, 1958 -- A blizzard strands several thousand fans at the track. They spend the night there eating sandwiches, playing cards and shooting dice.

Feb. 2, 1961 – A Pennsylvania RR train carrying race fans derails near the course, killing 6 (one man was decaptitated). Dozens escape and hoof it to Bowie. Several hours later, a 4-alarm fire breaks out in the grandstand, canceling the 9th race.

Jan. 31, 1966 – In the worst barn fire in Bowie history, 41 thoroughbreds and 4 ponies perish.

Feb. 26, 1972 – A zebu, ridden by jockey Danny Wright, wins the first (and only) Noah's Ark International. "Fleece," a llama, is second and "Walk A Mile," a camel, is third. A buffalo, "Home On The Range," wallows in the mud during the post parade, throws rider Luigi Gino repeatedly and fails to finish.

Feb. 14, 1975 – Four jockeys at Bowie are implicated in a race-fixing scandal on Valentine's Day. Three of them (Jesse Davidson, Luigi Gino and Ben Feliciano) serve time in prison. The fourth, Eric Walsh, commits suicide instead.

July 13, 1985 – As a plane overhead trails the banner, "Thanks For The Memories," the last race is run at Bowie.

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