Ben Schwartz was never the typical sort of racing commissioner. While most of his brethren got their appointments because of political connections, Schwartz's only perceptible qualification was his love for the sport. And while most commissioners spend their time at the track in the Turf Club, Schwartz always was most comfortable on the backstretch with horses and horsemen.
After serving six years as chairman of the Maryland Harness Racing Commission, he is getting the chance to indulge his true passion. He is a full-time horse trainer, operating a stable of five cheap thoroughbreds based at Laurel Race Course. The man who once spent his days worrying about the economic health of a multimillion-dollar industry was elated Thursday to earn $3,000 when he won the first race at Bowie.
He has loved the game ever since he was a youngster. He has trained horses part time off and on for years. But he always had other responsibilities: working for the U.S. Senate; operating a small newspaper, the Prince George's Bulletin, with his wife Carol; and serving on the racing commission.
Former Gov. Blair Lee appointed Schwartz to the harness-racing position in 1977. During his tenure, the state legislature granted significant tax relief to the standardbred industry and revitalized it. Frank DeFrancis (whom Schwartz unblushingly calls "my hero") bought moribund Freestate Raceway and transformed it into a showplace. Schwartz had chaired the commission during the harness sport's great boom in Maryland, but in 1983 he resigned.
"My heart was always with thoroughbred horses," he said, "and I wanted to get back to them. Besides, my wife had sold the newspaper, and for the first time in our lives we had nothing to keep us from the horses."
Since that time, they have been immersed in the racing business. "We have only cheap horses," Schwartz said. "That's all I can really afford. I guess I was the poorest guy ever on the racing commission. But anyway, all I want to do is play the claiming game."
He was undaunted by the thought of plunging into competition with all the sharp practitioners of the claiming game who are based in Maryland. "I think I excel with a bad-legged horse," he said. "I know the anatomy of the horse. I can feel all 215 bones. What I've got to learn is the business end of it. I've got to learn to drop horses in class and run them where they belong."
Schwartz and Carol started their new career at Charles Town, where they won 18 races in 110 starts, but then moved back to Maryland three months ago in order to be closer to their grandchildren. Here their regimen is basically much the same: long and hard.
"It's pretty much an all-day job," Schwartz said. "We start at 7 a.m. and feed the horses at night after the sun goes down. It's just my wife and myself. We do the whole works."
That might not sound like most people's idea of an enviable life style, but to Schwartz, it's heaven. "I don't have to worry about bills in the legislature or the handle at the track," he said. "I'm having more fun than I've ever had in my life."