For years, people in the Maryland thoroughbred industry have hoped to see the state get year-around racing at its major mile tracks. When the final race was run at Timonium today, and Laurel was ready to open on Wednesday, that hope had become a reality. And an era in the sport had ended.
Not too many years ago, the Maryland racing scene was filled with quaint, countrified half-mile tracks: Bel Air, Marlboro, Hagerstown, Timonium. One by one they disappeared, and now Timonium has run its last full-fledged meeting. Starting in 1985, it will operate only 10 days a year as part of the Maryland State Fair.
There were at least a few sentimentalists in the closing-day crowd, including Timonium's perennial leading trainer, King Leatherbury.
"I have mixed emotions," Leatherbury said. "I started racing on the half-milers, and I've been racing at Timonium for 26 years. I saw the other half-milers go one by one, and now here's the last. I think it will take a little element of fun out of the sport; you feel a lot closer to the game here. But I accept it for the betterment of racing."
To share Leatherbury's sentimentality, a racing fan would need a long memory like his, because a visitor here today would have had trouble detecting much charm. Small tracks do offer a special kind of appeal when they are clean and well-run (as Charles Town is), but Timonium is a grim place.
The walls were gray cinder block. The cement floors were dirty and cracked. Paint was peeling off the ceilings. The grandstand was gloomy and ill-lighted. As the facility had deteriorated over the years, the track's business dropped, purses dropped, the quality of competition and the size of the fields dropped.
This year many of Maryland's top trainers were so disgruntled by the existence of Timonium's 40-day meeting that they left the state en masse and raced in New Jersey. Even trainers who stayed weren't too thrilled with the place.
"As a horseman, I don't like it," Fred Baker said. "You have to alter your training and put so much stress on speed here. And as a fan, I like class, I like better horses, I like turf racing -- which this place doesn't have. I'm thrilled that it's closing."
The racing became so bad that even Timonium loyalists became disenchanted.
"You can hardly bet here any more," said one semiprofessional gambler who had been a Timonium regular for years. "What can you do with five-horse fields and $8 exacta payoffs? This would have been my last year here, even if the track had stayed open."
In contrast with the Timonium fare, the opening-day card at Laurel Wednesday would delight any horseplayer. The state's top trainers -- Ron Alfano, Dick Dutrow, James Murphy, Charles Hadry -- have come home, and the card is filled with good, competitive 12-horse fields. Not many people at the track are going to be talking nostalgically about the good old days at Timonium.