Bowie Race Course starts its month-long summer season Monday, and I will never enjoy a Bowie opener as much as this one.
I always try to help my mental health by putting as much distance as possible between me and the "track in the pines," but at my luckiest I have never been able to get more than a thousand miles away. For this Bowie meeting, however, I am vacationing on the other side of the world.
When I watch the sun setting behind the sampans in Hong Kong harbor, I do not expect to think nostalgically of the sun setting behind the parched Bowie infield, shining into the glass-enclosed grandstand, simultaneously roasting and blinding the people within its confines.
Nor do I expect to be missing any new delights, any renovations or innovations that will greet the opening-day customers. Other reacetracks occasionally surprise their patrons by constructing new facilities or at least applying a coat of paint to the old ones. At Bowie, however, I am sure that the grandstand will still have the same high, black-beamed ceiling and dim lights, giving horseplayers the initial impression that they have mistakenly wandered into a ramshackle barn.
The only changes and improvemens at Bowie this summer are on the backstretch, which only benefit the horsemen. While Bowie management is reacting to the gas shortage by offering free bus service to the track from the New Carrollton subway stop, no new comforts await the fan when he or she arrives at the track.
Such was the case at the winter meeting, when Bowie wished its customers Happy New Year by raising the clubhouse parking price to $3 and unveiling the first 50-cent program for Maryland's thoroughbred racing.
The people and corporations who own Bowie have been trying to sell the track for years, which probably accounts for their refusal to spend money on the facilities. Besides, they are businessmen whose mission is to maximize profits, and they can do that by spending as little as possible on the track's upkeep.
In any other industry, a business that treated its customers as Bowie does would be quickly displaced by one of its competitors. Bowie, of course, has no neighboring competitors because it operates as state-sanctioned monopoly.
The state grants Bowie its racing dates and thus its right to exist. With this life-and-death power over race tracks, the state has the power to regulate and even compel appropriate conduct.
This is the proper job of a state racing commission, and some commissions perform it. Even in Maryland, the harness-racing board gently armtwisted the management of Ocean Downs into constructing a new clubhouse.
But the only time members of the thoroughbred board seem to take notice of Bowie is when they grant the track the right to raise prices. Horseplayers who stumble down the steps in the grandstand or go half-blind trying to read their racing forms in the dim light have the board to thank. Or, it they have the option, they ought to see how many thousand miles away from Bowie they can get.