Whoever owns Bowie Race Course may light up a big cigar today, chuckle and congratulate himself, "Well, I've really pulled one off this time."
Of course, no one knows exactly who does own Bowie. The track is controlled by a Canadian company, which is controlled by another corporation, which is controlled by a holding company, and on and on, like one of those box puzzles that, when opened, reveals only another box. But I prefer to believe there is a Machiavelli in the final box, someone who has dedicated himself to making the lives of Bowie's customers miserable.
I envision him barking out orders to his lackeys: "Paint the ceiling black to make the grandstand a little more depressing! Dim the lights so everybody gets eyestrain reading the Racing Form. Raise the clubhouse parking to $3!"
Those of us who have suffered these little indignities could not have guessed that they would prove to be part of a grand design. But Bowie's master plan is expected to bear fruit in Annapolis before the legislature ends its session on Monday. Bowie's ownership has made the track such a blight on the Maryland racing scene that legislators trying to make the sport healthier have concluded that they must get rid of the track or get rid of the owner.
This will happen when the Maryland Senate approves a bill that has already passed the House of Delegates. It calls for the state to buy Bowie for up to $12 million and take over the operation of the track. This figure includes millions of dollars to pay for the racing dates that Maryland already owns. The great irony of the plan, the one that probably has the invisible owner cackling, is that the people who will pay this money are the very ones who have already suffered so long: the horseplayers of Maryland. Bettors will be taxed an additional 1.2 percent on win, place and show wagers so that Bowie's owner can collect this windfall.
The current legislative efforts to do something about the sorry state of the Maryland racing industry began when Gov. Harry Hughes proposed a plan calling for "consolidation." The state would buy out Bowie and shut it down, letting Laurel and Pimlico take over its racing dates. This was such a blatant public subsidy for the owners of these two tracks that it encountered a lot of understandable resistance.
So Del. Paul Weisengoff, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees racing, championed an alternate proposal. He advocated the creation of a state racing authority to run Bowie, similar to the New Jersey Sports Authority that operates the Meadowlands. He envisions the day when economic conditions might force a complete state takeover of the racing industry and, he said, "We've got to be ready."
Under the bill, the Maryland Racing Authority would run Bowie for two or more years and then determine whether the track ought to remain in existence. Given the nature of bureaucracies, it seems unlikely that the members of this authority would conclude that they couldn't run Bowie profitably and that their own professional existence should be terminated, along with the track's.
Bowie is here to stay. The track that has so often seemed to be on the brink of extinction has proved to have more lives than nine cats. But even under state ownership it is unlikely to become much more bearable in the immediate future.
If a state racing authority is going to adopt a wait-and-see attitude for two or three years before determining the track's ultimate future, it is certainly not going to plow the necessary dollars into a massive renovation of the grandstand. For a few years, at least, a state-owned Bowie would probably bear a depressing resemblance to the Bowie controlled by Gibraltar Parimutuel Inc., the current owner.
But there would be one difference. Now, when we suffocate in the Bowie grandstand, are blinded by the sun, stumble on the ill-constructed steps or pay $5 for admission to the grimy, depressing clubhouse, we don't even have an identifiable official to yell at.
If the state takes over, we will at least know where to air our complaints. And since the state is going to take $12 million from us and put it into the pockets of Bowie's phantom owners, we have every right to do a lot of complaining.