From time to time, as suits his peevish nature, our colleague, Andrew Beyer, renews his custom of publicly forswearing, forevermore, the unrefined state of horse racing at Bowie.
"I, for one, will do my gambling elsewhere," he likes to write as he heads to Florida for the winter. What usually follows is a recitation of his complaints against Bowie, in which Beyer's description of conditions at that track ties the Olympic record for hurling invective.
He reviles Bowie for, among other faults, its dreary and dimly lit grandstand, its shabby clubhouse, the do-nothing management, its $3 parking fees, $4 clubhouse admission and 50-cent programs "that leave a bettor needing a longshot in the first race to get even." This bad-mouthing of Bowie has become established Beyer chic.
Beyer, himself, must be rejected by faithful Bowie fans; the robust, Spartan ones known as the Bowie Breed, who know no discomfort, recognize no inconvenience, tolerate no complaints as long as the horses are running.
When did the holder of a winning ticket, or the dreamer thereof, ever give thought to the dreariness of the grand stand or Bowie's grubby landscaping behind the backstretch? A double-digit mutuel ticket in the gladsome clutch of a Bowie bettor transforms Bowie's dimly lit, carpentered stands into the Taj Mahal West.
Those scrub pines beyond the Bowie track take on all the majesty of Hialeah's stately Royal Palms. And, by some horticultural miracle, Hialeah's resplendent bougainvillea have also come to Bowie along with that winning ticket.
On the other hand, Beautiful Belmont it ain't. In the winter, particularly, Bowie is, indeed, bleak. But like Muggins Feldman said, "Bettors ain't interested in the scenery."
The Bowie bettor knows what Beyer is loath to admit: a winning ticket can cure melancholy.
For years, the state legislature has been trying to write Bowie and its racing dates out of existence. The lawmakers talk, not ambiguously, about "dropping one of Maryland's three tracks." Bowie is never named as such, but always the finger is pointed at it. But Prince George's County has its own legislative strength, and Bowie is saved.
The loyalty of the Bowie Breed to the track in Prince George's needs no more proving. Neither rain, nor sleet nor threat of snow stays the Bowie bettor from his apartment with the mutuel windows. In the blizzard of '58, when 11,000 Bowie fans were snowed in by the sudden storm that doomed them to an all-night stay at the track, the popular question among them was: "Anybody got the entries for Monday?"
That was the night when Walter Haight, The Washington Post's turf writer of sainted memory, while telephoning to the newspaper an hour-by-hour account of the Bowie fans' plight, was approached by one marooned horse player.
"Hey, Mr. Haight," he said. "You got a phone. Will you phone my wife to let her know I won't be home tonight?"
The obliging Haight called the number and began to tell the lady who answered, "Your husband won't be home tonight . . ." He got no farther in his explanation. The lady said, "Are you the same bum who phoned in for him last Saturday night?" and hung up.
You want memories? Try Oct. 4, 1974. For one bettor, Bowie took on an elegance unmatched even by the track of Beyer's dreams. He cashed in a ticket for $68,881.10 on the triple.
Bowie, of course, has had its problems. How the mutuel clerks, parking attendants, security employes, jockey valets and the men who man the starting gates all came under the sway of Local 693, Retail Store Employees Union, may mystify some people, but it is consistent with Bowie logic. Anyway, they threatened strikes lots of times and closed down the track twice, leaving the Bowie Breed to writhe in their inactivity.
In 1927, the clubhouse and grandstand burned to the ground. The Bowie track, as hardy as its bettors, survived. A few years back, two riders were suspended for "having an electric device" on the track during the morning workouts. The same year, four jockeys were suspended for restraining their mounts so that one nefarious bum of their acquaintance could cash 32 of the 68 winning tickets on the triple, adding to Bowie lore.
This, of course, was dishonest horse racing. But a realistic Bowie bettor had the unanswerable rationale. He said, "You're not gonna have honest horse racing till we have an honest human race."
They don't have the trains from Union Station to Bowie any more. The Japanese, very sneaky about what they had in mind for December 1941, were stocking scrap-iron for the big adventure. They had bought up the rails of the abandoned Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington line that had serviced the track.
Thus it was, on one April day in 1945, with the 97th Infantry on Okinawa, that a thought suddenly occurred to a certain Washington Post war correspondent who was ducking mortar fire like everyone else in the outfit: "Jeez, they're throwing that Bowie railroad back at us."
Beyer will come back from his Florida excursion in due time, probably with bloated wallet because he can pick them horses good. And he will have his usual winter tan, and he will say them Florida tracks are elegant, and that may be true. But they ain't got the Bowie romance.