At Laurel Park, a way of life limps toward the sunset

As a horse heads to the gate, very few fans are on hand for Laurel Park's last day of racing this year. Workers fear there may never be another.
As a horse heads to the gate, very few fans are on hand for Laurel Park's last day of racing this year. Workers fear there may never be another. (Michael S. Williamson)
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010

In a room the size of a storage unit, where the closets have no doors and the kitchen and bathroom sinks share a counter, life's victories might seem limited.

But there they are - on the wall, in a box, in a photo album John Collins flips through. The first picture is from 1969. He was 16 and had just started working at racetracks. The horse, Reely Beeg, came in first, and there is Collins in the winner's circle, smiling under his floppy blond hair.

He has hundreds of these - victory photos that turned over time from black-and-white to digital color as his hair faded to gray, snapshots of the highs that have kept Collins, 58, working with horses for more than four decades. Now, he worries that his course has reached its end and that he will lose the tiny room he shares with his fiancee, Tricia, behind the Laurel Park racetrack.

Saturday was the last day of racing at Laurel this year, and those who work and live there fear that it may be the last day ever. An industry that has been ailing in Maryland for years appears as close as ever to death.

"I never dreamed in a million years there wouldn't be racing in Maryland," Collins says. He recalls when the horses drew crowds. He knows people who loved the sport so much that they had their ashes scattered on the track. Now, he worries, "you might wake up and there'd be a chain on the gate saying: 'That's it. Party's over. No racing.' "

At its most recent meeting, the Maryland Racing Commission unanimously rejected plans by MI Developments and Penn National Gaming - which, operating as Maryland Jockey Club, jointly own Laurel and Baltimore's Pimlico track - to dramatically reduce the racing schedule next year. Commissioners said such a short schedule would in effect kill horse racing in Maryland, along with thousands of jobs that depend on it.

Penn National spokesman Eric Schippers said that the Maryland tracks lost $7 million last year and that the shortened schedule was an attempt to restore profitability without slot machines. Voters approved a plan last month to operate slot machines at the Arundel Mills mall, ending a long battle to bring them to Laurel Park, which has no profit-swelling event comparable to Pimlico's Preakness.

At the commission's next meeting, on Tuesday, the Jockey Club is expected to offer a compromise: 77 days of live racing leading up to the Preakness, many more days than the 47 the company first proposed. The tracks held 146 days of racing this year.

Meanwhile, those who work and - in the case of many employees - live at Laurel Park and its sister facility, Bowie Training Center, struggle with the unknown.

At Laurel, trainer Ben Feliciano Jr. stands in a barn with his name on the side. He trains 20 horses at the track, down from 50 in a good year, and knows their personalities intimately - how one gets angry if he speaks too close to her face and another drinks soda from a bottle if allowed. His father was a jockey with 2,802 career victories; his uncle rode Secretariat, the legendary Triple Crown winner, the first time the horse won a race.

Feliciano, 45, began working at the track when he was 16 as a valet in the parking lot, and he kept that job even after he started training. His early winner's circle photos show him wearing his valet uniform, khaki pants and a green jacket. Those are the men he worries about now, he says.

"They are the guys you say, 'Jesus, what are they going to do?'รข??" Feliciano says. "It's hard enough to get a job for people coming out of school."

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