It survived the great snowstorm of 1958 that stranded 5,000 fans and the grim train wreck of '61, when the Bowie Special plunged into a ravine and six people were killed.
It endured blazing fires that gutted its grandstand and horse-killing fevers that swept its barns. It has come through bitter stockholder feuds, nasty infighting in the racing world and at least three legislative attempts to put it to death.
Now the economics of the '80s seems destined to do what nothing else could -- shut down Bowie Race Course, the scrappy little underdog of Maryland racing that has always come from behind to survive one more season.
Today Bowie is in trouble, like the Maryland racing industry itself. The crowds are dwindling and so is the money they bet. Maryland, which once supported nine healthy thoroughbred tracks, will have only three including Bowie by year's end.
"Years ago, racing was a monopoly. Its only competition was illegal -- bookmaking and the numbers game," said Carlyle (Jiggs) Lancaster, a Prince George's County horsebreeder who grew up around Bowie's barns and backstretch in the 1920s. "Racing was literally the only game in town."
But now Maryland racing is beset on all sides by competition, from newer tracks in the neighboring states, casino gambling in Atlantic City and a successful lottery right in its own backyard. Attendance at Bowie has been dropping steadily since 1970, down about 37 percent as of last year.
Many in the industry believe the answer is holding more races at two of the tracks and closing down the third in order to cut operating expenses. Last year, when the men who control Maryland's other big tracks, Pimlico and Laurel, bought Bowie for $12 million, rumors circulated that this was just what they had in mind. Last month, those rumors became reality.
Laurel owner John Schapiro wrote to state legislators asking them to pave the way for Bowie's closing by reassigning to Laurel and Pimlico the dates the General Assembly had set aside for racing at Bowie. If Schapiro has his way, Bowie's winter season, set to start Dec. 10, would be its last.
That prospect has spurred both approval and dismay, but then again Bowie, with its big glass box of a grandstand trimmed in red and green, has always excited fierce passions, of both love and hate.
When the track was sold in 1983, Washington Post racing writer Andrew Beyer had this to say: "Racing fans who have visited Bowie this summer might wonder why the owners of Pimlico, or anybody else in his right mind, would want to buy the place."
Others see it differently. "It is part of our heritage," said Shirley Baltz, historian for the 33,000-resident city of Bowie. "When you say you live in Bowie, people say 'Oh yes, the racetrack.' It's a landmark, the way people recognize the place where we live."
The track, which sits just off Route 197 in Prince George's County, opened on Oct. 1, 1914, a time when the fans arrived by rail on the old Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis, sat in an open-air grandstand and kept track of the odds on 18 chalkboards set up on the grassy infield.
"It was just a little old country track back then," said Lancaster, who was born in 1920, and still can remember running there when grammar school let out to hang over the rail and watch the horses gallop to the finish line.
Much of the track's early history is lost. Apparently no one thought to chronicle events as they have for Pimlico Race Course, Bowie's tonier cousin to the north and home of the Preakness. Yet Bowie has a place in racing folklore.
There was the freezing February day in 1961, when the Pennsylvania Railroad's Bowie Race Track Special took a curve too fast as it headed for its grandstand destination. The engine jumped the tracks and plunged into a ravine, taking other cars and passengers with it. Six people were killed and more than 100 were injured. Rescuers worked for hours to free victims from the mangled wreckage, but some passengers stumbled unhurt from the crash. They headed straight for Bowie, trudging three miles to get their bets down on the first race.
The races went on without a hitch that day, until the ninth and last was about to begin and smoke started curling onto the track. A big fire had broken out in the betting annex to the grandstand.
Track owner Donald Lillis was in Florida that day, or so the story goes, and kept trying to reach general manager John Loome. Lillis called in the morning and was told, "He's not here. He's down at the train wreck." Lillis called in the afternoon and was told, "He's not here, he's down at the fire."
To that, the exasperated Lillis yelled into the phone, "Let the damn place burn down."
But like the bettor who loses one day only to come back the next and win big, Bowie alternated between calamity and success for years.
In 1957, the track pioneered winter racing, becoming the first on the East Coast to run its horses through the snow and sleet and cold of February. "Lillis thought if he could overcome the elements, he could bring Bowie back," said Lancaster. His gamble paid off.
Horseplayers, who had no place else to go during these months, flocked there from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey by bus and train. "Fifteen or 20 Pullman cars would pull up behind the grandstand," Lancaster recalled. "Jack Loome would count them, because he could tell what kind of day he was going to have just by how many there were."
"We were running in the winter when nobody else was," Alvin A. Karwacki, the current general manager, recalled with a nostalgic smile. Bowie's "handle," the total amount of money bet, hit an average of $1.2 million a day in 1969 -- an all-time high, he said. "We even outhandled Pimlico."
It was in those years that the owners encased the hulking grandstand in glass, much to the dismay of traditionalists who said it took away the last vestiges of Bowie's gracious past. But Bowie had never been known for its beauty. "We get the horseplayers," track public relations man Muggins Feldman said in 1963. "They're not much interested in scenery."
Indeed, the amenities of Bowie have been the subject of a runnning feud for years between two Washington Post sports columnists, Beyer and Shirley Povich.
Again and again in his column, Beyer has denounced the parking fees as outrageous, the betting area as a "shabby barn," and the grandstand as the only one in America to face straight into the sun, so that Bowie customers "can be simultaneously blinded and baked." The management, Beyer has said, doesn't even make a token effort to improve the place.
Povich, acknowledging all of its failings, says that Bowie's charms are just misunderstood by Beyer. The track has "spawned a stout specie of horseplayer," according to Povich. He calls them the Bowie Breed -- fans who brave numbing cold and blizzards, rides on flea-bitten rail coaches and train wrecks to put down their $2 bets. To the holder of a winning ticket, Povich recently wrote, "Bowie assumes all the beauty of the Taj Mahal of racetracks."
No matter how it was viewed, every year or so, someone would try to do Bowie in. Sometimes it was the other big tracks, whose owners coveted its lucrative winter racing days. Sometimes it was the General Assembly, which in 1970 drafted legislation to close Bowie and Marlboro, a smaller track in Prince George's County, and move the racing days assigned to them to Laurel and Pimlico. But Bowie always overcame the challenges from within the state. It was the challenge from outside it couldn't beat.
In 1969, the state of Pennsylvania started its first winter season of thoroughbred racing, Karwacki said. "That more or less was the beginning of the end."
Horseplayers from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania now had racing closer to home and didn't need to trek to Bowie, according to Karwacki. Figures from reports to the state Racing Commission tell the rest of the story. In 1969, an average of nearly 11,000 fans streamed into the track each day. In 1970, that number dropped to 9,800, and then kept going down. Last year, it hit a low of 6,900.
Schapiro said his decision to close Bowie is strictly "a business judgment," one that will enable him and the Cohen family, which controls Pimlico, to put their resources to better use at the other tracks.
State Sen. Leo Green (D), who represents Bowie in the General Assembly, recognizes that many people feel "the track is part of the county's history." But if the revenues are down and the owners want to close, Green thinks it's likely the legislature will go along with them.
Indeed, if Bowie does go at the end of next season, not everyone will be sorry. "You get some strange people here when the track is in session," said Kathy Hoffman, who lives on Ovalard Lane less than a mile away. "I've got two animals here," she said, cradling a tiny Yorkshire terrier in each hand. "I'm afraid to leave them outside."
Some, of course, are more nostalgic. Mary Mallory, one of Hoffman's neighbors, said she and her husband spent their honeymoon going to the track. "It's a kind of memory for us," she said. "We can go back and relive our younger days."
It's that way for a lot of folks. Snowden Carter, of the Maryland Horsebreeders Association, said Bowie was the first track he ever went to, and he can still remember riding a pony there when he was 6 years old. Lancaster, who now breeds thoroughbreds on his Horsepin Hill Farm, first dreamed of owning horses as he toddled after his father, then the track physician, at Bowie in the 1920s. For Bill Linton, the Racing Commission's acting executive secretary, Bowie always brings to mind the hardy bettor, the kind who would stumble out of a train wreck to make the first race.
Lancaster said that Southern Maryland has "always been horse country, and Bowie's been a part of that." Its closing, he said, "would end a grand tradition."