Horseplayers attend opening day at most race tracks with a feeling of optimistic excitement. But they go to Bowie Race Course warily, wondering what new ways the track may have found to offend the sensibilities of its customers.
When Bowie opened its 76-day winter season yesterday, patrons who wanted to park in the clubhouse lot had to pay $3 for the privilege (a 50 percent increase over the old outrageous price). After paying $4 for clubhouse admission, they had to shell out 50 cents for programs (a boost from 35 cents). The overhead of going to the races in Maryland is so high that a bettor needs to hit a longshot in the first race just to get even.
Having paid the new prices yesterday, horseplayers were greeted by the old Bowie, whose defects are all too familiar. The first floor of the grandstand still has the high black-beamed roof, which gives a man the feeling that he is betting in a large barn, and a shabby barn at that. The grandstand itself is perhaps the only one in America that faces into the sun, so that even on a cool, pleasant day, Bowie customers can be simultaneously blinded and baked.
The clubhouse isn't much better. The dining room that "overlooks" the track is situated in such a way that when a fan tries to look at the horses coming down the stretch, he is not apt to see much more than the guy at the next table eating his corned beef and cabbage.
Many of Bowie's flaws are irremediable. But the most galling thing about the place is that the management doesn't even make a token effort to improve the facilities. The management knows that Bowie is the only game in town, and bettors are going to come whether or not the grandstand gets and occasional paint job.
One half of one percent of all the money wagered in Maryland supposedly goes into an "improvement fund" with which the tracks can upgrade their facilities. In recent years Laurel has spent money to refurbish its grandstand, and Pimlico built an attractive new clubhouse. But Bowie's use of the improvement fund remains invisible.
The Maryland Racing Commission has the power to make Bowie improve its facilities and to treat its customers more humanely. Its power to assign racing dates gives it considerable leverage over the tracks.
Yet the commission almost never uses this leverage. Instead, it traditionally gives Bowie whatever it wants. This year, it awarded the track the choicest racing dates (at the expense of Pimlico) and also rubber stamped its request for higher parking and program prices.
One reason that neither the commission nor public opinion can pressure Bowie into treating its customers decently is the absence of a responsible owner. The Cohen family owns most of the stock of Pimlico, takes pride in its business and takes the heat when something is wrong. The same is true with John Schapiro at Laurel.
But who owns Bowie?
According to the track's last annual report, Gibraltar Pari-Mutuel Inc. owns 70 percent of Bowie. Foodex Systems limited owns 62.8 percent of Gibraltar. Hambro Corporation of Canada, Ltd., owns 57.7 percent of Foodex. Peel-Elder Developments, Ltd., owns all of Hambro Corp. of Canada. Hambro Canada, Ltd., owns all of Peel-Elder. North Canadian Oils, Ltd., owns about half of Hambro Canada, Ltd.