A race track was laid to rest yesterday, and one could not say the deceased was not much of a draw. The folks came in steady numbers, from over the highways and from out of the back roads in Prince George's County to pay last respects, and perhaps with a mind to cash a bet or two, which is a correct attitude on such occasions.
It was affirmed early that the track was getting decent hommage on the day of its demise. Eddie McMullen, who presides over the press box, was relating that "the man downstairs who prints the programs says this has been the busiest day of the year, by thousands."
This was the Bowie Race Track (1914-1985), just before being committed to dust, with the last ticket cashed or sent fluttering to the floor. And its totalizator lights doused for eternity. Bowie would be no more.
Oh, the track itself will be around for a while, as a ghost of itself, on the promise it will become a training facility serving its buyout liquidators at Pimlico and Laurel. But this is a lame promise, for already in the wings are the developers, calculating and waiting to seize on Bowie's 476 acres, ripe for housing and malls and such, and cash-flow cum write-offs, and balance sheet happiness.
The final rites yesterday were not quite mournful, and a big crowd mixed sentiment with the steady pursuit of winners at the betting wickets, with sentiment finishing a positive second. There was nothing weepy among those who held a $50 exacta ticket on the first race.
The track people did attempt to mark the day by presenting a memento to each customer, a small glass tube containing the inscription: "Dirt from Bowie's finish line." Cynics might debate it, but that's what the track said. And some people were said to be buying an extra program as a keepsake of the day Bowie died. However, sentiment did not appear to be rampant, and there was no wet-eye melancholia.
The fans, the bigger tracks, the state acing commission and the legislature were counting Bowie out at last. Somehow, they always appear to have it in for the most rustic of Maryland's tracks. The poor-man's race track, the track on the other side of the tracks. In 1972, Bowie escaped extinction by one vote in the state legislature when native Prince George's delegates brought their clout to bear.
They gave Bowie the worst of the racing dates. And Bowie not only survived but the hardy breed of bettors made those dates the state's most valuable, and Pimlico and Laurel were antsy to get into the act. Bowie's loyal bettors braved rain, sleet, train wrecks and blizzards among other diversions, nor would they take snow for an answer.
Bowie could talk back to its detractors. Which track in the state had the absolute best racing strip? Favored by horsemen over Pimlico and Laurel? Hirsch Jacobs, one of the United States' most famous trainers, always chose to winter his large stable at Bowie, and galloped them on the Bowie loam that negated the risk of soreness and injuries that affected other horses in training at other tracks.
"Hirsch Jacobs would send his horses from Bowie to the New York tracks and kill 'em up there," remembered Joe Kelly, the splendid racing writer of the late Washington Star. In 11 different years, Jacobs was the leading trainer in the United States.
The special texture of the Bowie racing strip is a story in itself, if not much noted in the track's history. "There, behind the backstretch," said McMullen, "was the tobacco farm owned by Mr. Mack. I don't know his first name. Mr. Mack wouldn't sell his land to the track for a long time, but when he did, they knocked down what used to be a big hill and took the dirt fertilized by all those years of tobacco planting. Whatever the elements were, they had a race track that was the envy of all the others in the state."
Yesterday they were closing a track that in 1914 was born out of wedlock, so to speak. For five years Bowie was an "outlaw" track, unrecognized by the hoity-toity New York Jockey Club, which rules on such matters. In the absence of mutuel machines, bookies took bets. Five years later, Bowie became legitimate, getting its license from the state and acceptance from the Jockey Club bluebloods.
Many a Bowie story is to be plucked from memory. The year was 1958 during the first winter racing when thousands were stranded at the track overnight in a Southern blizzard that made snow-covered igloos of every car in the parking lot. One stranded bettor, fearful of disbelief at home, sought assistance.
He asked The Washington Post writer, the late Walter Haight, who had access to a telephone, to call his wife and explain he wouldn't be home that night. Generously, Haight did so, only to be met with the retort, "Are you the same bum who called in for him last Saturday night?"
And on the occasion when one Bowie horseplayer had his pocket picked, it was not a total loss. A week later, it was returned to him in the mail with an extra $50 added to its contents and a letter explaining, "Thanks for the use of the funds in question."
A shameless presence on Bowie's last day was Andrew Beyer, The Post's racing writer and a good friend, who has missed no chance, foresaken no opportunity to bestow his scorn on less-than-fashionable Bowie. With his fancy notions of Hialeah's Royal Palms and Santa Anita's mountain backdrop vistas, and the mossy blueblood traditions of Saratoga and Belmont Park, Beyer has always scoffed at Bowie's unvarnished racing plant amid the scrub pines of Prince George's County.
Except on those days when he is cashing one of his whopping exactas and the Bowie backstretch takes on for Beyer a beauty rivaling the Taj Mahal's.
Beyer could not decently wait to dance on Bowie's grave. In a good-riddance article on Saturday morning, Bowie again was there to be flogged by him. The usual complaints were against its plant, its parking fees and the too-narrow new seats in the clubhouse, which apparently do not accommodate certain broad beams. Beyer-phobes would suggest that he'd had a bad day at Garden State.
But Bowie folks always have been content with their lot. Yesterday they mixed enthusiasm with final respects and their presence marked a meet record crowd of 12,012, with a 22.7 percent gain in betting dollars over 1984 for the meet, and record handle of $1,715,598.
The last race at Bowie was a 6 1/2-furlong contest for $4,000 claimers, the usual Bowie fare, although the track was proud of its $113,000 Governor's Cup a race earlier. The ninth, the ultimate one, was won by a thing called Perfect Park, who helped produce a pleasant $34 exacta. And then, maybe 10 minutes later, all the lights went out on the tote boards. There would be no more, and Bowie surely has perished.