Bowie Days - By Joe Hickey

(Originally published in the March 20, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

Frost on the ’pane, moccasins by the hearth. A fresh log on the fire pops and spits; old pal Haley, the black Labrador, cocks an ear, then settles down to her nap. Eyelids grow heavy. Man and best friend are warm and at peace.

Outside, a sky so gray and sullen that only God and Munnings could paint it, warns of an Alberta clipper whistling our way. Wind gusts fleck the windows with the first wet snowflakes.

It’ll be a Bowie day, for sure.

This turn of events wouldn’t have surprised race fans back in the ’50s and ’60s when Bowie Race Course (and Charles Town) pioneered winter racing in the North. It was the only game in town. It was the stronghold of hard-bitten horseplayers knows as the Bowie breed.

Hialeah had its fountains, royal palms, and flamingoes; Bowie settled for scrub pines, a yellow snow plow, and carrion-feeding turkey buzzards.

The race trains that chugged into Bowie’s rail siding made it all work. With New York, Jersey, and Delaware tracks in hibernation, gamblers from Philly, Camden, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington fought for seats on the Pennsylvania Railroad “race specials.” It was travel at your own peril, for pickpockets, card sharks, and train wrecks were not uncommon.

Lady Luck seemed to thumb her nose at Bowie through the Track in the Pines’ tortured 71-year existence.

The track opened in 1914 at Prince George’s park. It was born out of wedlock, so to speak, an “outlaw” track opening without a license. The following year, now named Bowie Race Course, the mile plant was akin to a frontier mining camp, though no more than 30 miles from the nation’s capital.

“Crude,” termed a reporter’s opening day story.

Bowie’s history of misfortune reads like a passion play:

  • 1915, fierce snowstorm halts racing.
  • 1927, Clubhouse/grandstand leveled by inferno.
  • 1956, Fire rages in barn area.
  • 1958, Feb. 15 blizzard maroons thousands at track.
  • 1961, Two-locomotive race train powering 11 cars entering Bowie rail spur at excessive speed jumps track, killing six and injuring 243.
  • 1964, Devastating fire kills 11 horses in Bud Delp’s barn.
  • 1975, Valentine’s Day jockeys’ race-fixing scandal rocks sport.
  • 1985, Bowie ceases to operate as a racetrack, while continuing as a training center.
  • 2004, February, demolition of old grandstand completed.

Wood, glass, steel, and concrete framed Bowie, but it was adversity that forged the character and the characters that gave the southern Maryland track a flavor all its own. Characters like volcanic Larry MacPhail in the front office, the Black Widow in the betting ring, Yum Yum, Kitchen Sittin’ Smitty, and so many more.

Marty Meyer, nonpareil track superintendent, kept the running strip raceable in the foulest of weather conditions. The jockeys trusted him with their lives.

Hirsch Jacobs, who took as big a bite out of the Big Apple as any New York trainer before or since, hardly had to push a pencil into the track cushion to know it was safe for his gritty old reliables, Joe Jones and Promised Land.

Delp, King Leatherbury, Johnny Tammaro, and Dickie Dutrow livened the action with their no-holds barred claiming wars. And then there was Victor Coldonado, who bedded down in a hearse parked alongside his Bowie shedrow. His meal ticket was a 3-year-old named Iron Legend, who won the 1978 Woodlawn Stakes at Pimlico, his trainer hoping it would take him to the Preakness, but it never happened. Affirmed and Alydar would have eaten Iron Legend alive, anyway.

How about Bake and Edith Price’s Yes You Will, who was backyard-raised across York Road from his connections’ Knotty Pine, a Timonium horsemen’s hangout? After Yes You Will won Bowie’s top race, the John B. Campbell Handicap, jockey Larry Adams leaped atop the rail and, in tightrope fashion, ran to the jocks’ room.

The press box was lorded over by publicist Milton (Muggins) Feldman, who, early in World War II, began his career at Delaware Park by airlifting race results to the Wilmington News-Journal via carrier pigeons. Honest.

Bowie holds many memories for me.

I was there Feb. 15, 1958, when more than 2,500 racing addicts were marooned for days by a fast-moving, 22-inch blizzard. And I, and fellow Maryland racing commissioners served as honorary pallbearers, at Bowie’s wake, July 13, 1985—ironically, a brutally hot afternoon.

Who would have thought this tough, boozy, old broad would die of heat stroke? Not me. 

Joe Hickey of Easton, Md., has been a publicist, writer, breeding farm administrator, and racing commissioner.

35 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Jennie

Wonderful piece!  Please write more, Mr. Hickey.

16 Mar 2010 2:13 PM
JerseyTom

Love this!!

16 Mar 2010 3:02 PM
Bowie Mike

Terrific story and great first hand accounts!  I really enjoyed this article.

I have a blog that covers items of interest in Bowie, Maryland, and after the passing of Al Karwacki last week, I told myself that I need to write something about Bowie Race Track, including a little of the history and a little about the experience of going to Bowie.  It's been almost 25 years since it closed, and many current Bowie residents don't know the history and didn't get to experience the race track.

If I could have imagined the perfect story on the Bowie Race Track, this would be it.  I plan on posting a link to this article from my blog sometime soon.

Mike

16 Mar 2010 3:04 PM
Bill Daly

I was also there on Bowie's last day and received a vial of dirt from the finish line as a memento of this beloved racetrack.  I jokingly told my wife that it was a metaphor for the treatment received by diehard railbirds over the years at Bowie.  Actually, I really loved that track and the racing surface was among the best I have ever seen. One of the highlights on my racing calendar was the John B. Campbell Handicap - a fitting tribute to a great racing secretary.  The best Campbell I ever saw was when True Knight ran down Delay.  Angel Cordero was up on True Knight and he certainly navigated through the stretch like Gale Sayers on a touchdown run.  What a ride!  The same can be said for my memories of Bowie. A great ride.

16 Mar 2010 3:06 PM
Robin from Maryland

Great article.  It's a sad testament to the sad,sorry state of Maryland horse racing.  First Bowie and than Pimlico.  And where will the Preakness go?  Sure that Jim Mckay is turning in his grave.  Marylanders will only have themselves to blame when racing leaves the state altogether.  Just ask any of the remaining farms where they run their horses, out of state.  I will hold on to all the wonderful memories I have of going to the races.

16 Mar 2010 6:01 PM
TonyC

Reading this article was like taking a walk down memory lane! I rode the train from Baltimore to Bowie many a day and I have many memories associated with the track. For one,the day the track was frozen and Chris McCarron advised the jocks not to ride for safety reasons and people went crazy throwing trash cans and beer bottles onto the track in response to the decision. I also remember the great Nick Shuk during his glory days at Bowie, once atop the fast filly Marion Bender wearing his famous white riding gloves so you could witness the adept handling of his mount. I will miss Bowie and the many friends that I hung out with including "Snake" the jockey agent, "Rabbit" the tout, "Andre" the mouth, and "Tuie" who never seemed to cash a ticket. So long Bowie!

16 Mar 2010 7:35 PM
$bill

I FOUND MY THRILL ON BLUEBERRY HILL

16 Mar 2010 8:31 PM
Bob M

Rember Leemat,he loved Bowie.

16 Mar 2010 8:59 PM
Bill Daly

Another Campbell I remember was when Jolly Johu outgamed that Sansom Farm horse [Spirit Rock?]. Those two battled all the way around the track together and finished noses or heads apart. That race meant something in those days and it took a good horse to win it.

16 Mar 2010 9:42 PM
Barry Irwin

I have a horse at Bowie right now trained by a Chilean with an Irish name...Daniel O'Ryan. I have been to Bowie twice this winter, the last time when there was 4 1/2 feet of snow piled in and around the stable area. I love the covered bridge where the horse walk from the barns to the track. I love the old-time feeling I get on the backstretch. Wonderful place for my personal tastes. I have bought some great horses that called Bowie their home, notably Captain Bodgit and Unbridled Belle.

16 Mar 2010 10:30 PM
John T

It seems just like yesterday when

the John B.Campbell and the Barbara

Fritche were both run at Bowie.In

1966 the mare Tosmah managed to win them both.There was some top class horses won the John B.when it was run at Bowie like the year

Kelso carried 131 pounds

and there were other good winners like Mongo and In Reality.Great story Joe and thanks for the memories.

16 Mar 2010 10:43 PM
Bellwether

THE OLD PLANT STILL HAS A HEART BEAT LAST TIME I CHECKED...& MD. RACING TOO...PLEASE...LONG LIVE THE KING!!!...

17 Mar 2010 1:12 AM
Gravesend Park

Thank you for the wonderful Bowie memories. Since I was raised in the Maryland/DC area, Bowie was to me a glamour track, something I read a lot about and yearned to visit- back when Maryland racing was still in its glory days (the 60's and early 70's.)--Remember pre-Breeders'Cup, the Washington DC International was the race, both Kelso and Northern Dancer were retired to the Chesapeake area, the great Native Dancer stood near Baltimore, and the recently vacated skeleton of the Woodward's Belair Farm - the premier racing stable and home of champions, was not far away. I used to drive to Bowie when I was in high school, a wonderful adventure.

My parents took me to see the John B. Campbell for a coveted birthday present and I routed  home a horse who I knew had recently won his prep there- Kauai King. My parents than had to extend that birthday present as we traveled to Pimlico to celebrate our home state's first Derby winner be narrowly victorious in the Preakness!

17 Mar 2010 1:44 AM
Treston

Bowie and Marlboro were my diversions as a new law student to the D.C. area.  Does anyone remember a "Silky Sullivan" type closer named Jim Busher?

17 Mar 2010 2:11 AM
Dusty Nathan

Joe,

I was there daily. I remember the last race trifecta on Feb. 14, 1975. Tickets in the jock's room lockers. And, everybody was married to Passmore's daughters. I remember Eric Walsh killed himself. Jesse Davidson was in it. George Cusimano. Every rider at the track - as it was a 12-horse field. Tony Agnello might have been in the race, too.  

The strange parking lot. The escalator as you walked into the grandstand. I used to sit in the dining room daily, often with Doc Fielding, the podatrist. With those little one-lane roads, it was easy to get trapped in on bad weather days. Remember which boxer lived down the street? Sugar Ray Leonard.

Thanks for writing this story. It brought back some memories. - dusty

17 Mar 2010 2:16 AM
Dusty Nathan

To Tony C.

Remember the day at Pimlico that Marion Bender ran off the board with $500,000 to show?

Nick Shuk died young too. Do they still have the Nick Shuk memorial? He really could ride.

Also, Upper Marlboro was fun. Hagerstown still has its track and grandstand all these years later.

-dusty

17 Mar 2010 2:18 AM
RG

1956 Sailor after polishing off Nashua in Florida and heads to Bowie for the John B and another win. It looked great on TV and was sure sign that spring was coming. Loved the place and was never there.

17 Mar 2010 5:41 AM
Ellpol

Two of my favorite memories of Bowie. First, one winter I was watching the races on the second floor grandstand TV at the top of the escalator right above the restauarant as I always did and my winning bet got taken down.  I was so angry I punched a hole in the wall under the TV that hole was there for the rest of that meet, the next year they covered it over with a piece of plywood and painted it.   I can't believe I didn't get thrown out.  Today I would be in custody for something like that, in the 1970's they just ignored it.  The other memeory is one day I was watching the post parade at the rail and CJ McCarron rode by on the horse Guy a great little alowance and later claiming sprinter he bends down and gets in Guy's face and says "Hi Guy" that just cracked me up and still does today.  He was mimicking a commercial popular in that time of a man looking in the mirror at himself shaving saying the same thing. I miss those days of finishing up classes at the Univrersity of Baltimore and getting in my car and driving up route 301 to the track in the pines.  The track may be closed but my memories will last as long as I do.

17 Mar 2010 8:22 AM
Bill L

Daring Step,  Happy Rabbit and Jameela, Gala Performance, John Campbell Day when they would give away scotch plaid hats, Personality, Hirsch Jacobs coming in from New York,  Frank Whiteley, a paddock you couldn't hardly see through, the barns on the other side of the train tracks.....a 17 yo just introduced to racing...Thanks Joe

17 Mar 2010 10:11 AM
gravesendpark

Gee- sorry, faulty memory.  But Kauai King won the Governor's Gold Cup enroute to the Derby, it was then a major race for 3 year olds, not the Campbell.

17 Mar 2010 10:15 PM
John B

One of my greatest memories of Bowie was sitting at a table next to Jim McKay in the clubhouse dining room watching the last race run on the last day. A friend of mine had a cookie can with 32,000 in cash in it sitting on a chair next to him. After the last race we headed for the parking lot and upon arriving at our cars he remembered he left the cookie can on the chair in the dining room. Running faster then the horse that won the last race he headed back and lo and behold that can was still there. It was his luckiest day at the races.

18 Mar 2010 6:27 AM
Douglas Amos

Excellent. Study week in Toronto meant Bowie, W Va @ night, Waterford on the way home. Warner's @ 6:00 a.m. for the Morning Telegraph and then it was racing all day. The Campbell was a a big, big race then. Only low point in the article was the exclusion of the great Clem Florio.

18 Mar 2010 10:08 AM
Ray

The article was great and so are the comments.  There are still lots of us out here who love this game.

18 Mar 2010 11:54 AM
Angela

I love this blog!  It is so much like listening to my grand-dad and his friends when they got together...remebering great and not so great moments at the track.  

Personally, I think the tracks today compared to those of days gone by, leave more than a little to be desired.  Why are they trying to make them like DisneyLand or Las Vegas?  

18 Mar 2010 12:27 PM
drew mollica

growing up in NY Bowie was featured on sat. afternoons in the winter on local channel nine with frank wright!

Wow what memories from a game I used to love. Passmore rode lots of winners and the game was fun. Now a sorry state of affairs make old racetrackers like me yearn for the good old days! I want to say I bet five bucks on Sip Sip Sip one cold saturday and cashed a good ticket! Great article about a great time and place! Thanks for the memories!  

18 Mar 2010 10:56 PM
Paul Berube

The years I worked at Bowie 73-78 were among the best I spent at the race track. People were the heart and soul of the place starting with my sadly departed friend-Al Karwacki- the three stewards- Fred Colwill, Merrill MacNeil and Melvin Mackin. They treated me so well day in and day out. Others with whom I interacted daily included the Maryland commission executive secretary- Jim Callahan. the steward's secretary Kitty Moon who always gave her ethnic background as Persian, Ray Kennedy the AMtote manager, Bob Hancock the mutuel manager and my own secretary Virginia Scagliarini who knew everything that was going on around the track.Bowie wasn't fancy but it was a true racing place that inspired great loyalty and even better memories.

19 Mar 2010 6:49 PM
clocker

"Pioneer?"  Hardly.  There were mercernary tracks like Guttenburg and Gloucester in NJ and several Chicago tracks that ran in December and January in the 1890s.  In fact, that outlaw circuit ran nearly year 'round.

21 Mar 2010 5:15 AM
Charlene

I remember Bowie in the winter in the 80's. Didn't a filly beat the boys in the Campbell one year in the 80's? What jockey and trainer won the final meet?

23 Mar 2010 12:41 AM
Dan Perlsweig

I enjoyed reading your column about Bowie.  Not too many people remember when they raced there.  On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1952, I rode, in a snowstorm, the longest price winner in Maryland that year.  The name of the horse was Towncastle.  He paid $273.80.  

24 Mar 2010 6:20 PM
John M. Toothman, PhD

Nick Shuk was without a doubt one of the finest jockeys to come out of Maryland. His riding style was a true art form and he deserves much more credit for his achievements than he received. Delaware Park does not offer the Nick Shuk Memorial Race. However, as Nick's biographer you can read about his life in The Reinsman: The Nick Shuk Story by John M. Toothman,www.amazon.com

Nick is also listed in wikipedia.

02 May 2010 10:33 PM
Cris

I used to live about three miles behind the track on a tobacco farm, if you took "the bottom" to get there. The bottom was a dirt back road that had three small homemade board bridges without side rails that was a short cut for workers like Marty Meyer to get to the track.

Marty was married to my Uncle Freddie's sister Haddie. She went to the track everyday. I used to ride my bike through the bottom to the track to watch the horses work in the mornings before school. We had a track that was 1/4 mile oval and Freddie had a 38 Chevy us kids would drive around the track on our farm. Kelso was running and it was a school day so I skipped school, hot wired the car, and used a stick to work the pedals since I was too small to reach them. I drove through the bottom and went to valet parking, I told them to park it. They took me to Marty's office. He let me stay till Kelso ran and then had one of his men drive the car back to the farm. I got a whipping from the old weeping willow tree for that one.

It was a race between the DuPonts, Kelso vs. Mongo a great race down to the wire.

Another great working man's horse Gala Harry ran great at Bowie. Anyone remember Lexington Park aka Trans Am or Wicked Man a wonderful one eyed horse. They both ran years later, but were Maryland reliable racehorses.

26 Jul 2010 1:39 PM
robtri

I remember fond memories in the late 60's of attending the races at Bowie while I was at the Naval Academy. I remember Rock'em Back, a deep closer son of Carry Back, who was a big fan favorite. I remember some horse, Kummel, who won a mid card race and set a new track record. Of course, the track was frozen! I also remember the cold and the snow and the day they suspended racing after the third race due to a large snowstorm. It is where I always associated the smell of cigar smoke with a race track. And, I also remember a classmate of mine who managed to cash a win ticket on a 17-1 long shot by the name of Salt Mine. I also recall my room mate being in love with a horse called Tomevy who cost him a fortune and never cashed a ticket on. What great memories! Miss the place and also miss Barbara Livingston's last pictures of the old club house proir to it being torn down. Those pics have been removed from the internet for reasons unknown. She has a new web site but refuses to publish those images - what a shame. The only ones extant that I know of...

08 Aug 2010 11:14 PM
Bonnie Shuk

Being the widow of Nick Shuk, the

memories are immense.

Mugs Feldman, wife Sandy in the Publicity office, Charlie Eckman Ann Carter, training Euphoric Belle, Oliver Douglas, We had given Mugs the win picture of his first win on Little Harp, I don't know who ended up with it. Bowie will always take first place in my heart.

02 Sep 2010 9:01 PM
JERRY G. KACZMAREK esq.

I was at BOWIE RACE COURSE in 1966 with horse trainer JERRY C. MEYER.First at LAUREL stabled next to the likes of jockey CHRIS ROGERS and HORATIO LURO trainer of the famous NORTHERN DANCER. There was NORTHERN DANCER grazing with HORATIO. We just came from WOODBINE with 30 horses, JERRY was among the top three trainers for the meet.We won our share of races ,PAUL KALLAI was our main rider.I stayed employed by Mr. MEYER for three months abandoning ship for a job with ROBERT J. FRANKEL and one horse named HAMMORTON which BOBBY claimed and we were off to the BIG APPLE. JERRY.g.KACZMAREK@gmail.com

17 Sep 2010 10:50 PM
EUGENE LEVEY

I WAS STABLED ON "BLUEBARRY HILL BACK IN 1965...ANYONE REMEMBER THE "HILL"

LET ME KNOW..eugenelevey@hotmail.com

26 Feb 2011 9:12 PM

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