After 70 years of horse racing, Bowie Race Course closed in 1984, a victim of changing trends and economics in the sport. Today, the oval off Race Track Road is used only for training. Its grandstand leveled, the place is thick with weeds, chipped paint, unpaved road and disrepair. If not for the men and women grooming and galloping horses there, Bowie probably would be considered a community blight.
At barn No. 9, across the street from the track, among the ruins, trainer Larry Murray beds down 23 nice horses from the stable of Howard and Sondra Bender, including their elderly star, La Reine's Terms.
Murray joined the exodus of Laurel Park trainers uprooted from their cozy home this summer while that track undergoes significant upgrades.
La Reine's Terms is living in a small cinderblock stall at the end of the shed row -- "the penthouse," joked Murray -- and though the environs aren't befitting his status as Maryland racing royalty, the horse doesn't complain.
At the advanced age of 9, La Reine's Terms clearly has his mind on racing. His sharp victory in an allowance race on June 11, opening day at Colonial Downs, is remarkable because the horse hadn't run since scoring the biggest win of his life 18 months prior in the $275,000 Great State Challenge Turf Invitational in Texas on Dec. 7, 2002.
After a brilliant campaign that year, in which La Reine's Terms won five of six starts -- all stakes races, including the Maryland Million Turf -- the grass specialist looked as if he had had enough.
"He's always had a chip in his left front ankle," Murray, 51, said one recent morning at Bowie, "but it would do more damage going in there [to operate]. It's like a grain of sand in an oyster, aggravating him. Last spring, when we tried to bring him back, that's what bothered him. The older he gets, the longer it takes. I thought about stopping with him the last four years."
But what would a horse like La Reine's Terms do in retirement? Even though he has won 14 of 35 lifetime starts, earned $696,266 and repeatedly displayed a burning desire to compete, there is practically zero interest in him as a stallion prospect because of an unfashionable pedigree.
"Nobody wants a Private Terms," said Murray, referring to the sire of La Reine's Terms who, while a decent stallion, has produced few sons successful in the breeding shed. "It's a losing proposition to stand stallions, but I'd still like to see this horse get the opportunity."
In the meantime, he will race. This evening, at about 8:15, La Reine's Terms will compete in the $75,000 Independence Day Handicap, a mile turf stakes at Mountaineer Park in Chester, W. Va.
If all goes well, he will shoot for two more races this year -- the Find Handicap for Maryland-bred runners, and another run in the Maryland Million Turf.
The Benders, who own Glade Valley Farm in Frederick County, have been racing and breeding to their own sterling band of broodmares for many years. Howard Bender's father owned Glade Valley, but the son didn't get deeply into racing until his wife, Sondra, plunged them into the game in 1982.
"My wife decided we needed something new in our lives that we could do together and learn together," said Howard Bender, who owns Blake Construction Co., "and we already had the horse farm."
Together, with Murray in charge, the Benders have been dominant stakes-winning owners and breeders on the Maryland circuit for years. Howard Bender estimated they have run an astounding 30 stakes winners.
After watching one of their horses euthanized after snapping a leg, however, the Benders attempted to distance themselves from emotional involvement with their horses.
"That really affected us," Howard Bender said. "We try to find them good homes when they're done racing, but it's still a business."
La Reine's Terms, however, is a little more like family.
As a yearling, he broke his neck, likely fighting with other horses in a field. The Benders had a $75,000 insurance policy and thought hard about putting him down.
"The poor guy was a mess," Murray said. "His head was tilted to one side; his ears were drooping; he was drooling; he couldn't walk. But when we got him back to the farm [from a Virginia veterinary clinic], he didn't look like a horse that wanted to throw in the towel. He was a fighter."
La Reine's Terms won his first stakes race in 1998, and long after most of his contemporaries have gone, he still wins.
The Benders, who reveled in the comeback last month, will fly today to Mountaineer Park and watch him run.
"Horses age like six to one in human years," Howard Bender said, marveling at the resiliency of La Reine's Terms. "He's definitely an old man."