Bowie's dreary summer meeting will end Tuesday, and the Maryland racing scene will shift to an even drearier location at Timonium Wednesday. But for horseplayers in the area, there is one consolation: big changes in the state's thoroughbred industry are imminent.
This very likely will be the last full season of racing at Timonium's inaccessible, ramshackle facility. It will also be the last season of racing at Bowie under its present do-nothing absentee ownership. The sale of the track to the Cohen family, which owns Pimlico, is almost complete, the papers scheduled to be signed soon. Maryland racing will be taking a whole new shape.
But what shape?
I am happy to unveil my master plan for racing in the state.
Many people think that the Cohens are buying Bowie to shut it down and transfer all its racing dates to Pimlico. Another popular theory is that they plan to buy Laurel, close down either it or Bowie, and conduct racing at two locations.
There are, however, some drawbacks to either of these plans. The most severe one is geographical. Laurel and Bowie are centrally located to draw from two major population areas, Washington and Baltimore. A Pimlico season that lasted for months would effectively write off Washington-area clientele. Even hard-core local players are worn down by fighting traffic on two beltways and I-95 for 2 1/2 hours every day.
The idea of "consolidating" racing at either Laurel or Bowie may sound lovely in theory--especially the "supertrack" idea--but month after month of racing in any one location can become deadly. Horseplayers need a periodic change of scene. Maryland's three major tracks have different virtues and could be put to somewhat different uses, and during different seasons of the year.
If there is one thing I hate about Maryland's tracks, it is this: on a pleasant day, there is no pleasant place to go. Laurel, Bowie and Pimlico are all concrete-and-glass boxes, and on a balmy day in the spring, summer or fall nobody likes to watch races from the inside of a box.
At Belmont Park, a horseplayer can sit in an open-air grandstand; at Gulfstream Park he can sit under a tree by the paddock. But the only outdoor seating in Maryland is in the shabby extension of the grandstand at Pimlico, from where it is difficult to see the races.
One of Maryland's tracks should be geared for racing during the temperate months of the year. Pimlico doesn't have the available land for expansion. Laurel has what may be the nicest, airiest glass-enclosed grandstand in the country, and it would be a shame to change it. That leaves Bowie. The Cohens are going to have to spend liberally to make the place tolerable, anyway, so this is what they could do:
* Plant some grass and trees, put in some benches, create parklike areas behind the track and at one end of it, with betting windows and television monitors nearby.
* Rebuild the grandstand in the manner of Miami's Calder Race Course, with most of the seating outdoors but with a smaller section glass-enclosed and air-conditioned.
* Build a turf course.
Despite Bowie's traditional role as Maryland's winter track, Laurel could operate from November through March. Pimlico could run its usual spring dates, and the new, improved Bowie could operate from late May through the end of October.
The schedule would allow fans to enjoy each track's particular virtues while looking forward to the next stop on the racing circuit.