This weekend, the eyes of the thoroughbred world turn to Louisville and the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby. Ask most of the folks feverishly studying the racing forms and sipping their mint julips where the cradle of American thoroughbred racing is, and they’ll probably tell you it’s Churchill Downs, or somewhere in the Bluegrass State.
But they’re wrong: It’s a historic stable in Bowie, nestled among suburban tract houses.
The Belair Stud was established as a horse-breeding center in the 1740s by Samuel Ogle on the grounds of his stately Belair Mansion. Thoroughbred horses Queen Mab and Spark were the first to be brought to America. Ogle’s brother-in-law, Benjamin Tasker Jr., brought Selima, later to be a colonial champion, from England to Belair in 1750.
But Belair really found fame from the 1920s through the 1950s, when its horses won hundreds of races. Chief among them were Gallant Fox and Omaha, who became the first father-and-son winners of the Triple Crown in 1930 and 1935.
The roll of honor continues: Johnstown won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont in 1939. Nashua was named United States Horse of the Year in 1955 after winning the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. Granville won the same honor in 1936 after finishing first in the Belmont.
Belair ceased operations in 1957 when its owners sold the land to create the modern suburb of Bowie. Ogle’s original stables have long since disappeared, but the 1907 stables, where Gallant Fox, Nashua and others were kept and trained, is open to the public as the Belair Stable Museum.
It’s an unassuming U-shaped brick building where the main attraction is two wings of stalls where horses lived, separated by the grassy paddock where they exercised. No, you’ll have to tell the kids, there aren’t any real horses here (unless you go on May 19; see box), but there are stables filled with bales of hay and bags of oats, and two life-size models of horses. (The recorded neighing of horses, played frequently over a loudspeaker, is more cheesy than scene-setting.)
The box where Gallant Fox was raised is marked with a weathered wooden sign listing his victories and prize money of $340,415, “making him the biggest winner of all times [sic] in the world.” There are other displays about famous former residents and an area decorated as a changing and equipment room for jockeys.
Two rooms inside have modest displays of surreys and coaches used at Belair — don’t miss the one with a box for a hunting dog below the passenger seat — and old signs from the stable. There is also a wall exhibit about African American jockeys, including Isaac Burns Murphy, the first man to win three Kentucky Derbies, and James Winkfield, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1901 and 1902 and remains the last African American to ride to victory in the country’s most famous race.
Far more interesting, as we enter Triple Crown season: A racing library, decorated with silks worn by Belair jockeys, an elaborately gaudy silver trophy awarded to the winners of an annual race at the now-closed Bowie Race Course and signs and black-and-white photos from that track.
If you have a passing interest in the sport of kings, or know someone who fancies becoming an equestrian, this simple museum is worth a visit, if only for shining a light on an oft-overlooked portion of local history.
IF YOU GO: Belair Stable Museum, 2835 Belair Dr., Bowie. 301-809-3089. www.cityofbowie.org. Free. Open Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.
HOW TO GET THERE: There is no parking at the stables. Park at Belair Mansion, which is about a quarter of a mile up Tulip Grove Drive.
BOWIE HERITAGE DAY: Have a kid who’s really into horses? As part of Bowie Heritage Day on May 19, the stable will offer free pony rides and a chance to see a Clydesdale. The museum also will unveil an exhibit on Nashua and host bluegrass music performers.