by Ted Black
Since its last day of live racing on July 14, 1985, Bowie Race Course, now the Bowie Training Center, has had an almost cat-like nine lives. At the outset of the current year, however, the training center seemed to be on its last legs, with the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) intending that the center would finally be closed at the end of this year.
But with the Laurel Park fall-winter meet set to get underway on Friday, the Bowie Training Center is still home to nearly 120 horses. The equine population at the desolate facility, reminiscent of those empty barns seen in the classic film “The Grapes of Wrath,” is expected to rise again this fall. When northern tracks like Monmouth Park, Delaware Park and Suffolk Downs close, many of those horses will head south and likely find Bowie an ideal home for the winter.
“Right now, the plan is, since there isn’t a new barn at Laurel yet, that I will probably put the Suffolk people back at Bowie,” said MJC Director of Racing Georganne Hale.
The expected influx will mark quite a change in atmosphere.
“It was quiet here this summer, very quiet,” said longtime Bowie trainer Linda Gaudet, a Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association director who spent much of the summer traveling back and forth to Monmouth. “When we started the summer, we were down to 10, 11 horses. I gave four away to be riding horses. But we claimed some horses this summer at Monmouth, and now we have 17. We’re starting to fill back up.”
In many respects, Gaudet’s barn represents the likely trend for the Bowie Training Center this fall and winter. On most days during the summer, with live racing not an option for local trainers in Maryland or Virginia, a facility with the capacity to house over 900 horses had become a ghost town. Instead of horses, foxes and deer had taken up residence; empty barn doors opened and slammed shut with the arrival of sudden wind gusts.
“It was quiet here all summer, but I’m used to it,” said longtime Bowie trainer Chris Grove, who still has 14 horses on the grounds including multiple stakes winner, Celtic Katie. “It seems like every year we go from being almost full to being close to empty. There were some days when it seemed like me and Linda and Bill [Campbell] were the only ones here.”
Gaudet, Grove and Campbell stayed while numerous Bowie trainers opted to take stalls at Laurel throughout the summer. Trainers such as Damon Dilodivico, Ollie Figgins, III and Phil Schoenthal relocated. Horses they trained — 2013 De Francis Dash winner Immortal Eyes, Grade 1 winner Dance to Bristol, and Grade 2 winner Miss Behaviour, among others — would no longer call Bowie home.
“For me, it was just about moving to a track where the horses were going to be racing,” Schoenthal said. “Miss Behaviour had always trained well at Bowie, as did all of my horses. It was a nice place to train. It was quiet most of the time, although last winter it got busy. When they offered me stalls at Laurel I thought I had to make the move. Everyone was aware of what the plans were for Bowie, but it’s still hanging in there.”
Those departed stars, of course, follow a long line of high-class runners that have thrived at the Bowie Training Center.
In the years after being converted from a race track to a training center, graded stakes winners such as Little Bold John, Northern Wolf, Captain Bodgit, Star Touch, Ten Keys and Who Wouldn’t have called the facility home. In more recent years, horses such as Concealed Identity, Norman Asbjornson and Pretension trained over the mile dirt oval in preparation for the Preakness Stakes. Concealed Identity, who participated in the 2011 Preakness for Linda Gaudet’s husband Eddie, still calls Bowie home.
“We’re looking stay here until there are enough stalls for us at Laurel,” Gaudet said. “At some point, when they get the new barns built at Laurel, they’ll probably have enough room for everyone here. But right now, we’re planning to stay here. There aren’t enough stalls for everyone at Laurel and Pimlico and once Monmouth and Delaware and Suffolk shut down, a lot of those guys are going to ship in here. It’s going to fill up again before long.”
By December 31, when many thought the training center would be shuttered entirely, it could house over 500 horses.
“Right now, it’s quiet here, but once those other tracks close and those horses return to Maryland they’re going to need stalls somewhere,” Grove said. “Most of the guys that were here before have already moved to Laurel or Pimlico, so those barns are full. Once those other trainers come back from up north, they’re going to need stalls and they’ll probably have to come back to Bowie. I would guess most of us will be here until they build the new barns at Laurel.”
In recent years the Bowie Training Center, comprised of 162 acres in Prince George’s County, has garnered plenty of political interest. Last spring, Governor Martin O’Malley contacted Bowie mayor Fred Robinson about having the city purchase the property from the Maryland Jockey Club, while in 2013 State Senator Doug Peters put forth Senate Bill 961 that would have enabled the MJC to “convey” the training center property to the city of Bowie.
The facility was initially allowed to operate as a training center thanks to former State Senator Leo Green, who insisted that the track remain open to limit continued development in the city and preserve the town’s history.
“We would like to see the track remain open as a training center,” Peters said. “It’s a big part of Bowie’s history. Besides, it would be tough to develop, especially in this economy. On one side [where the track surface is located] the lots would have be developed into 2.5-acre lots, while on the [barn side] the lots could be divided into half-acre lots. But whoever buys that property would have to knock down the barns and clear out the area before they could sell those lots and build houses.”
Bowie Race Track officially opened October 1, 1914 and the historic oval will celebrate its 100th anniversary next month amid little, if any, fanfare. Indeed, the track that pioneered winter racing in the East will, 100 years after it opened, once again face possible extinction.
Meanwhile, one of the four stakes on Saturday at Laurel Park is the $100,000 Dave’s Friend, named for one of the top Maryland-bred sprinters of all time, who won 35 of 76 races and earned nearly $1.1 million. He won three stakes at Bowie, taking the Southern Maryland Handicap twice [1980 and 1981] and the Chesapeake Stakes in 1978.