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Posted at 6:36 PM ET, 11/27/2009

Maryland horse racing in the home stretch

By editors

By Jonathan Chris Earnshaw

My first great race track impression, among the many that stand out in my mind, came on a murky Christmas Eve. It was the battered, corrugated-iron grandstand at Bowie, with a bunch of blobby snow blowing in my face. I bent to pick up a damp, cast-off program. The attendants had long vanished, for there was but one race left on the day’s card. Down at the dinky old paddock, I sniffed the rich mix of loam, sand and “horse stuff,” intently watching the final sway-backed mounts being led into the darkening ring.

I was especially fascinated by a rank 18- or 20-to-1 maiden nag called “Little Buttsie.” A minute or so later, they walked the parade out into the wintry mix. Soon they crammed the gate, the bell clanged and “They were off!” In the mad photo finish, at least a six-way split, my choice had nosed ahead, parlaying my $20 across-the-board wager into a tidy $440, just enough Christmas shopping dough for a crazy musician like me, especially in 1982 dollars.

Bowie’s days as a wagering track would end two summers later, and that ramshackle grandstand is long buried beneath the asphalt of modern development. Pimlico is daily dying, to the point where the few turf writers still plying the trade yawn aloud: “Will the Preakness be shanghaied out to Cali or just settle down at Gulfstream in Florida?” Who knows? Both Pimlico and Laurel are “managed,” if you can call it that, by a myopic Canadian conglomerate that has bobbled every ball tossed its way as far as paying its bills, taking a slots license or merely doing a halfway decent job of running a racetrack.

Yet, at least at Laurel Park, the name bestowed upon this property when it opened in 1911, there’s lingering charm on an autumn afternoon. Check out the big mares or stallions, shimmying huge flanks under bright-colored sweat blankets and responding temperamentally to the soothing clicks of a hot-walker. Cock an ear, and you’ll catch the curt “Riders Up!” This is the ancient call from the paddock master to let the jock know it’s time to jump up and take ’em out to the starting gate.

Since 2006, no Washington or Baltimore paper has carried racing results or day-to-day reportage on the horse world, but, baby, you better believe that Maryland racing is still a humming hive of raffish human and equestrian life. On a recent visit behind the scenes, Mike — who appears to be about all that remains of the press operation on the property — jovially shepherded me through the dusty but brightly sunlit “Observation Room” atop the oldest part of the main building. Outside this repository of yellowed stacks of dead Racing Forms proclaiming long-ago victories of Kelso and Secretariat and Seattle Slew, the big windows are still bracketed by ornate capitals bearing a frieze of horse heads combined with what looks like ears of Maryland corn.

Back in the press box, exactly one seemingly retired scribe reclined in a sprung armchair with his feet up on a scarred linoleum-topped desk, broad as a battleship. A trail of gray effluent wafted up from the ashtray in front of the soles of the guy’s shoes. Up in the ethers of Laurel, the nonsmoking rules need not apply.

Down on the tar apron leading to the finish, there stood, leaned and hollered a few hundred souls of varying sizes and stripes, cheering on — or cursing — the moment’s winner. On the “row,” thousands of dollars of wagers a minute were being taken, tellers nodding at those Maryland horse folk they see every day.

And, little do many Washingtonians realize, to this day thrives a vast network of lovely thoroughbred farms, hay and feed suppliers, saddlers, farriers, tack-makers, trainers and grooms, plus the whole shed-row community on the back stretch of the vast, forested Laurel Park preserve.

Bottom line, dear reader, you don’t have to take much cash to waste — you may win on a mere wing and a prayer. And, hey, if you lose, don’t go away angry, for you likely scarfed some fine local food, shared laughs and smiles, and got away from it all for a few hours.

Because if Laurel is ever auctioned off, all of a centuries-old tradition from our region shall fade in about a fortnight.

A version of this essay appeared in the Nov. 25-Dec. 8 edition of Street Sense.

By editors  | November 27, 2009; 6:36 PM ET
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Postscript to your article: What happens to the horse who gives his or her all but fails to bring back a proper return on the owner's and trainer's money? Read my book, 'Messages from Nature'. We once raced thoroughbreds. Now I rescue them. Thank Heavens the steroids are illegal..finally!! But so many dear souls are thrown into auctions and to the slaughterhouse and not close anymore. A horrible trip to Canada or Mexico amid pain and sad.

Posted by: steele2 | November 29, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

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