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.

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