When Bowie Race Course runs the last race of its 71-year history this afternoon, souvenir hunters might be scrambling to take home mementoes of the "track in the pines."
Some sentimentalists might want a pane from the grandstand's glass windows -- the windows that face the afternoon sun and turn Bowie into an oppressive hothouse on even the mildest days.
Some fans will want one of the black beams from Bowie's high ceiling that give the place the atmosphere of a big, dark barn. Or perhaps they will take some of the low-wattage light bulbs that further contribute to the dreary atmosphere and make reading the fine print of the Daily Racing Form almost impossible in certain corners of the track.
My own choice of a souvenir, until they were fixed a few years ago, would have been the steps in the upper sections of the grandstand. They were designed by a fiend, with a hard-to-see two-inch overhang over every step, so that one unsuspecting horseplayer after another would fall on his face.
In the absence of those steps, I might take home one of the reserved seats in the clubhouse. Back in 1971, Bowie advertised that it was about to unveil a "whole new look" for that season. The new look turned out to be a section of new seats, which were a bit too narrow for comfort but which had a full two inches of foam padding. For the privilege of avoiding the regular splintery wooden seats, Bowie decided to charge its patrons an extra $2.
Those seats always epitomized to me what Bowie was all about. The management cared nothing about the comfort or well-being of its customers, and felt they should pay extra (on top of already steep prices for parking, admission and programs) for even the most minimal comfort.
Undoubtedly, some people in Maryland will choose to forget all these indignities and gush with sentiment over Bowie's demise. My friend and colleague Shirley Povich is surely drying his eyes as he composes his umpteenth paean to the "Bowie breed."
Nonsense! Bowie Race Course -- or, more precisely, the attitude toward the public that Bowie epitomized -- just about killed Maryland's once-proud racing industry. It drove away thousands of fans and spoiled the game for the hard-core loyalists who remained.
Bowie's glory days came in the late 1950s and 1960s, when it pioneered winter racing and was not just the only game in town, it was the only game in the Northeast. Its customers were so starved for action that they would ride buses and trains through blizzards from New York or Philadelphia to get to the track. Management didn't even apologize for its view that these were such hard-core players that there was no point wasting any money on amenities for them.
Of course, Bowie ceased to be the only game in the Northeast when New York, Pennsylvania and other states offered year-round thoroughbred racing and the Maryland harness tracks started to operate in the winter, too.
Competition appeared from state lotteries and from the Atlantic City casinos. Now, those hard-core gamblers had plenty of other things to do with their dollars and -- given any reasonable alternative -- even the most fanatic racing fans wouldn't want to go out of their way to go to Bowie. Year after year, the track's attendance continued to drop from its record average of 12,609 in 1956 to 6,604 this winter.
Since Bowie controlled the largest number of Maryland racing dates, the whole sport became so moribund that even the state's politicians realized that drastic measures had to be taken to rescue it.
Those measures came in the form of an omnibus racing bill that, among other things, called for the end of racing at Bowie as of today. Those of us who understand all the things Bowie symbolizes won't shed a single tear. This funeral is an occasion for a celebration.