The backstretch of the stable in Bowie echoed with its familiar rhythms: hoofs pattering along, water splashing from hoses, workers calling out to one another in English and Spanish from the cinder-block barns. Bob Kelly leaned on his rake, watching the horse in stall 16, the sleek gray one with a few dapples of white and a slot in tomorrow's 129th Preakness Stakes.
Everyone in the stable is pulling for Water Cannon and his trainer, Linda Albert, Kelly said on a recent morning. "Linda works hard. She mucks stalls, walks horses, does it all." He looked over again. "It doesn't come often," a racehorse like that, a chance like that, he said. "If it comes once in a lifetime, you're lucky."
Kelly, 67, trains a few horses at the Bowie Training Center and is one of hundreds of people who work there. They marvel at Water Cannon, who rose from this worn-down collection of barns to a Triple Crown race, a long shot but still a reminder of what horse racing once was in Maryland and what they hope it can be again.
And they worry about their futures.
"This is the bread-and-butter of horse racing in Maryland," Henry Villari said as he held his chestnut, Nasty Business, so a ferrier could re-shoe the horse. "And it's tough for them to make ends meet. A lot of people are having to leave."
Horse racing provides more than 8,500 full-time jobs in the state, according to a University of Maryland study in 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available. There are breeders and grooms, jockeys and trainers, veterinarians, feedmen, track announcers, security guards and plenty of others.
It's one of the state's oldest and most resonant industries, coming from a long history of fox hunting, steeplechase and the excitement of the Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course. But now it's ebbing.
Racetracks in nearby Delaware and West Virginia have added slot machines and poured some slots money into purses to attract top racehorses and more bettors. New Jersey's tracks are negotiating to benefit from shares of casino money, and Pennsylvania is considering slots. All of that makes it harder for Maryland to compete, said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, a centuries-old organization owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., which runs the tracks at Pimlico and Laurel Park and the training center in Bowie.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has pushed to bring slot machines to Maryland, but he's met strong opposition from those with moral objections to gambling and those with policy concerns about relying on a mercurial source of money. Some opponents also see placing slots at racetracks as an undeserved windfall for Magna, which has been criticized for not investing enough in the facilities.
Even with slots revenue, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said, leaders of the horse-racing industry need to do more to broaden its fan base and compete with such sports as major league baseball and professional football. "I don't think [they] can expect this state or any other state continually to underwrite them without some sort of plan for them to become self-sufficient," he said.
'This Is Their World'
As politicians scuffle for a solution, the people in the backstretch, who know all about hoping for a break -- a perfect horse, a lucky bet -- are hoping for the chance to keep doing what they love.
In Barn 18, Albert scratched Water Cannon under the chin, murmuring, teasing him. A jockey waited by a post with peeling paint and a tacked-up clothesline, towels drying in the wind. An exercise walker led a black racehorse through, while someone else filled a pail for a horse's bath.
Shawn Shenski, at the next barn over from Albert's, grew up at the stable, where her 90-year-old father was a trainer before she was. "I love working with horses," she said, dropping a wheelbarrow full of hay. "They're a whole lot nicer than people." But the purses are getting so big at out-of-state tracks, she said. "Shoo -- then they wonder why they want to go there."
Kelly, working nearby, said: "The industry needs something. It needs a jump-start, bad."
He looked through the door behind him, away from Barn 18, to the long, low cinder-block bunkhouse where many of the grooms and exercise walkers and hot-walkers live. A man who had just finished rubbing down Water Cannon dropped into a lawn chair next to a door, one in a long line of identical doors in front of tiny rooms. Torn mosquito netting dragged from a line.
Some people drift in and out, but others have worked at the Bowie stable for years, living amid concrete, eating at the track kitchen. "This is all they know," Kelly said. "If the horse business goes someplace else, they'll be unemployed. . . . I don't know if some of these people could exist outside of it. This is their world."
It's his world, too, though he worked in construction for a while before coming back. Kelly grew up two blocks from Pimlico, and every day he'd run home from school to watch the afternoon's last races. "I'll stay in it as much as I can," he said.
Water Cannon looked up at the sound of a plastic wrapper crinkling as Albert pulled a peppermint from the pocket of her windbreaker. "I grew up in upstate New York, and I always knew about Maryland racehorses, as far away as I was," Albert said. "I couldn't even tell you what else Maryland stands for besides horse racing." She idolized the famous thoroughbred Secretariat, rode the old horses on her family's farm in Marathon, N.Y., every day, and left there to work her way up in the barns, as a groom, an exercise walker, a jockey.
She loves the horses, how a rider can feel the bundle of energy, the muscles ready to leap in a racehorse, the speed that can come at a touch. She loves the spectacle of the races. Sometimes she asks herself what she would do now, at 45, if racing weren't her life. "It's hard to think what else I would want to do," she said.
Fretting for the Future
At Pimlico, on a hot afternoon a week before the Preakness, Albert went down to the paddock to see another of her thoroughbreds before a race. A few bettors peered through the glass, watching the horses for signs -- of injuries, of strength -- or a lucky omen.
Albert's horse kicked the wall, sudden as a rifle shot, leaving a muddy hoofprint. He reared up and snorted as the jockey walked over the spongy green floor toward him.
People leaned against tables outside the paddock, poring over numbers in the racing program, or stared at the TV screens hanging from the ceiling. Aretha Portee pushed a broom across the gray linoleum floor by the bar. "I don't know what's going to happen," she said, worried about the future of her job, which she likes.
Some people in the state are ready for racing to fade away. They hate the politics of it, the endless debate over slots, they have said. Some hate the danger -- last week, a jockey at Pimlico fell from his horse, got kicked in the head and was rushed to the hospital. Some hate the gambling.
Upstairs in the 50-year-old grandstand, bettors talked about the steamy heat, the lost glamour of the Maryland tracks and their own bad luck. "I been playing the horses here since I was 12," said Anthony Piraino of Parkville, now retired. He comes to Pimlico just about every day. "It got me broke. . . . Once you get the horse in your blood, you can't get it out." He turned back to watch the next race.
"A lot of people are hooked on it," said Jack Levin, a Baltimore retiree trying to finish a puddle of ice cream, "especially seniors. . . . You can beat a race but you can't beat the races."
At the Bowie stable the next day, Albert and the owners of Water Cannon watched their thoroughbred's last strenuous workout before the Preakness.
"Maybe racing could collapse in Maryland," David Dorsen, one of Water Cannon's owners, had said. "More likely it will just become inconsequential -- the purses will go so low, the facilities will fall down."
Albert held her black stopwatch as Water Cannon sped around the track, legs stretching and folding, the clatter of his hoofs almost like a locomotive off in the distance.
"This used to be the center of winter racing in America," said Ellen Fredel, another owner of Water Cannon's. "They used to have trains from New York down here for the races."
Dorsen and Fredel's partner, Patrick Dooher, remembered coming to races in Bowie, before the track was shut. "When did it stop -- 1984, 1985?" he asked.
"July 13, 1985," Albert said.
Behind them, where the grandstand once was, weeds wriggled through cracks in the asphalt and sprouted from piles of dirt. White paint pulled away from the ruins of concrete walls. An old Good Humor ice cream sign lay in a heap of rusting metal, near a stack of old yellow chairs.
Albert told them Water Cannon's workout time, which was faster than she expected.
Oddsmakers put Water Cannon at 30-to-1, but Albert knows it's not over yet. Maybe they'll get lucky.