Winter Racing and the “Bowie Breed,” 1958

Jan 31st 2009 01:00 pm |

Red Smith called “…winter racing where it’s summer, strictly for sissies.” He said “…the true test of gallant greed (is) winter racing where it’s winter.”

Maryland commenced running in winter (“where it’s winter”) starting in the 1950s. From this, a new species of horse player evolved. When the now defunct Bowie racetrack started opening in the throes of winter over 50 years ago, it gave birth to what Shirley Povich – the Linnaeus of 20th century sport – identified as the “Bowie Breed.”

Image: Ad for 1957 racing season at Bowie (American Racing Manual)

In 1958, Bowie opened on February 8, the earliest racing in Maryland history to that point. Washington Post race writer Walter Haight began his story on opening day with this: “At a period once called ‘the dead of winter’ in racing and sewing circles, Bowie aims to be alive and kicking.” Alive and kicking indeed, as nearly 18,000 fans showed up for opening day.

Two weeks later, a tremendous snowstorm stranded a reported 3,000 fans at Bowie who were forced to spend the night in the track’s clubhouse. Management canceled the next day’s racing, undoubtedly disappointing those who “stayed over.”

It was this event that inspired the legendary Shirley Povich to classify the “Bowie Breed” in his piece in the Washington Post a few days after the infamous snow-in. Here is what Povich reported on February 19, 1958:

“As one who yields to no horse player in his avidity for the track, it is easy to be resentful of the efforts of some fanciful authors to compare the defeat in the Bowie snow of Saturday to Napolean’s historic retreat from Moscow.

“At Moscow, Napolean chickened out. He abandoned the whole idea, never to return. In the image of MacArthur, not Bonaparte, we shall. Even now it is safe to say of Bowie’s horse players that they are re-grouping. It is safe to say because there breathes no hardier band than the Bowie breed of bettor.

“There has been interruption since Saturday but the Bowie horse player is unwilling to take snow for an answer to his ruling passion. At the first indication that there’s a new pathway to the track, followers of the horse will follow the snow plows in close-order formation. They know the mutuel windows are always under cover.

“They had warning about Saturday’s snows before they set out for the track but 13,354 scorned the thought of a Saturday afternoon at home and fireside. They paid the newly-doubled parking fees, invested eagerly in programs at newly-hiked prices and paid the $3.60 clubhouse admissions for the worst seats at the track…

“…Not only for horse players but for track operators, success can be a heady thing. The Bowie owners gambled on the weather last winter and won, with a spate of sunny days that fetched big crowds who bet an average of more than $1,100,000 a day. Oh it was wonderful and so this year the track people pressed their luck and opened for business four days earlier than last year’s Feb 12 start.

“Now they know how King Canute felt about it when he tried to joust with the forces of nature and hold back the tides. As if wroth at the Bowie owners’ attempts to re-make the calendar, Dame Winter confected the biggest snow job in 22 years as a reminder that, at Bowie, June does not exist in February.

“The track’s big profits of last year may now be wiped out by the obvious folly of a Feb. 8 start of racing at Bowie. The track will begin to recoup, however, at the first indication that the horses are running again. The race track is one place of business where the customers are not always right, but they are always eager.”

Three years later, in 1961, when the Maryland track opened in what was called “the earliest spring in the history of the state,” Red Smith revisited the story in an article titled “The Bowie Breed.” Smith’s view of the Bowie Breed lacked the tear-jerking heroism of Povich. It is, however, brilliant, hysterical, and worth quoting at length:

In reporting the January 1961 opening, Smith wrote “…This year Tuesdays as well as Sundays are left open for two reasons. In the event that blizzards interrupt the entertainment, the programs froze out can be fitted in for the open Tuesdays. Also the five-a-week schedule allows for gambling on 10 Saturdays, traditionally the most profitable days. Mr. Don C. Lillis wouldn’t be president of Bowie and senior partner in a Wall Street investment firm if he couldn’t count his change.

“Though Mr. Lillis’ political convictions are a matter between him and his precinct leader, his choice of dates is obviously motivated by patriotism, a response to young Mr. Kennedy’s call for a fitter American beyond the New Frontier. While Florida and California cosset the covetous to the edge of decadence , Bowie has always striven to toughen the $2 plunger. Indeed, the hardihood of the Bowie Breed is practically legendary.

“Everybody remembers the gallant company, 1,000 strong, trapped overnight in the clubhouse by a Saturday blizzard two years ago. At first Gus Hartshorn, in charge of the Stevens commissary, was worried. He telephoned Joe Stevens in New York: “Mr. Joe, a terrible thing has happened—” “Have you closed the bar?” Mr. Joe asked, putting first things first. Actually, there was no cause for alarm. Gus broke out sandwiches and coffee, and Sunday found 1,000 waifs still contentedly blowing into their fists to keep the dice warm.”

NOTE: The Post published that 3,000 were stranded, Smith reported 1,000. This might be one of those rare occurrences where a story like this moves toward the truth over time instead of the other way around.

“In tribute to these orphans of the storm, a rather sentimental ceremony was conducted on opening day last year. Mr. Lillis imported a waddle of penguins who lined up at the clubhouse gate in their snappy thermal attire and were the first clients admitted. Later these Antarctic refugees were presented to the Baltimore zoo.

“Specimens of the Bowie Breed who show up Saturday will find the entire grandstand glassed-in and heated, with big ventilating blowers to clear the air around losers. Perhaps this is an improvement, yet it must be viewed with mixed feelings.

“Horse players love to suffer. They are never truly happy unless they are miserable—freezing or sweltering or drenched by rain, shiny in the seat and tissue-thin in the sole, elbowed and trampled and bruised in cramped space where the air they breathe has already been breathed several times, unable to find a slat to sit on or a winner to back, stony broke and sinking hopelessly deeper into debt.

“Nowhere has this design for living been honored more faithfully than at Bowie. In the old days the Maryland season always opened and closed there, with a short meeting in the raw rains of April and another among the snow flurries of late November and December. When the spring and fall meetings were abandoned in favor of a single glorious frolic in a winter wonderland, the joint retained all its old-time charm, perhaps even expanded it. Not only could the patron have a perfectly wretched day betting losers but a frostbitten ear might snap off to boot.

“Now, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Creature comforts are all very well in the plush sinkholes of Las Vegas, but the clientele attracted by strippers and one armed bandits has little in common with the Bowie Breed. When a horse player has nothing to complain about except the jockey’s dishonesty, the trainer’s incompetence, the placing judges’ myopia and the stewards’ indifference to fouls, he may very well quit the game cold and just stay home and beat his wife.

“Attendance and mutuel figures will furnish the answer. In recent seasons Bowie has drawn an average of 12,000 to 13,000 Eskimo’s daily with a handle running above $1,000,000. If the winterized plant starts attracting loafers who’ll just sit around dozing in the artificial heat when they ought to be tearing their pants getting to the $5 windows, Mr. Lillis will have only himself to blame. Once a breed has been fixed, like the thoroughbred, or schnauzer or Poland China, it’s a mistake to tamper with it.”

A “Poland China” is a breed of pig — I get the feeling Red Smith had little affection for horse players but he sure was a great writer.

If you have memories of Bowie, I would love to hear them. Does anyone remember hearing about the “Bowie Breed” when the place was still open? Leave a comment or send me an email: kmart1944[at]gmail.com.

I might do a future piece that is more historical in nature on the track that still stands as a training facility. Check out these great images from Barbara Livingston for the current 2001 state of the once state-of-the-art track. CORRECTION: Thank you to reader Frank for pointing out that the grandstand in these images has since been torn down.

SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS

“Bowie Ready for Opening on Saturday,” Washington Post, 2/2/1958
“3000 Stranded by Snow At Bowie Race Track,” Washington Post, 2/16/1958
“This Morning with Shirley Povich,” Washington Post, 2/19/1958

I found the Red Smith article from a book titled The Best of Red Smith published in 1963. I bought it for a $1 at a used book sale last weekend — one of my better finds!

“Winter Racing of Despair” — An article from Sports Illustrated in 1979 mentions the “Bowie Breed”

Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!

Filed in Bowie Breed,Bowie Racetrack,Maryland racing history,Povich, Shirley,Smith, Red,winter racing



11 Responses to “Winter Racing and the “Bowie Breed,” 1958”

  1. Frank says:

    Great stuff.

    One fine point: the terrific Livingston photos are actually out of date (I believe), b/c the grandstand has since been torn down. Bowie is still in active use, however, as a training track, though for how long is an interesting question…

  2. Colins Ghost says:

    Thanks for the correction Frank. I will put an addendum that the images are from 2001.

  3. tom d says:

    I met an older gent back in the early 1990s who claimed to be snowed in at Bowie that first winter.

    The gent recalled taking the train from Penn Station in NY to Bowie.

    The plows cleared the track between races but when the card was over the local roads were nearly impassable and he was stranded at the track.

    However, this is first archived news report I’ve ever read about it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Having worked at Bowie in the early 80′s I had experienced some of those snow falls. Bowie on some occasions was the only race track operating in the north east thanks to its track superintendant Buddy Kritzer and its GM Alvin Karwacki who always said “when it snows Bowie goes”

  5. Anonymous says:

    Andy Beyer of The Washington Post always refered to Bowie as The Black Hole of Calcutta. The one thing I remember is the number of Taxi’s that would fill up the gravel parking lot. The place was like a country club for cab drivers. They were a big part of the Bowie Breed.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I grew up within ear shot of the track's loud speakers, and played baseball on the field accross Race Track Rd. adjacaent to the back straight away. I was 14 when the track closed so I never became acquainted as a patron. I did not know that the track was a pioneer of winter racing, but my friends and I punctuated this fact by pelting the buses filled with betters with snow balls as they left the track on winter eveneings. My grandfather from Massachusetts knew of the track before we moved to Bowie. He use to spend time there when he visited us in the 1970s. It was a shame to see the grandstand with the big red "Bowie" get torn down.

    Ken P.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I grew up in Bowie and my Grandfather, from North Dakota, used to come to Bowie for the races in the winter. I grew up at the track on Saturdays and then worked in Bowie Liquors where a lot of the track "characters" used to come after the races. Lots of great memories there. What a shame to see it reduced to what it is today.

  8. Harry Wyatt says:

    Does anyone recall the Bowie train wreck of February 2, 1961? My brother, William Charles Wyatt, was the “fireman” on the train (even though it was a diesel train), and I am interested in learning more about it for a family history I am writing.

    The train was a special 11-car run of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the race course that originated in Philadelphia and carried 300 passengers.

    Six people were killed, 130 injured in the wreck which occurred in cold clear weather, but with snow on the ground. The newspaper account says many of the passengers walked to the race track to place their bets and view the racing card. Ironically, the ninth race was cancelled due to an unrelated fire in an empty grandstand.

    Some family remembrances have my brother rescuing the engineer, Howard Horner, of Camden, NJ, and the two of them walking to Washington, DC. Horner said that his brakes failed as the train was about to take the cut-off to the race course.

    I would appreciate hearing from anyone who recalls this accident and would love to find any pictures of it.

    Harry Wyatt,
    Perkasie, PA

  9. Fred says:

    The Big Red Bowie sign on the grandstand? I was the last one to scrape and repaint that gem. Lot of memories working there painting in the off-season.

  10. ROBERT says:

    Hi. Great article and great Bowie memories. I was there for the last race and had the triple. Could you tell me what horses were made up the winning combo? and/or How many of the “Bowie Finish Line” dirt souvenirs were given away?

  11. Cris says:

    The city of “Old” Bowie had a small train stop about a mile from the track. Washington DC is about twenty miles from Bowie and it is doubtful they would have walked all the way there with all the taxi’s and bus service to the track that there was in that day. I was there as a child and it was snowing when I walked from the parking lot to the grandstand. The rails crossed the road to the back of the grandstand and the parking that was at the side of the building. It was not a long walk to get inside. Once the crowd got snowed in and the track made food all night and gave the crowd something to keep them warm in the largest slumber party in Maryland.

    Bowie had a lovely mural of PG County tobacco farms and horses racing around the track painted on the Clubhouse wall. The smoke shop, barber shop, and diner with its floor mounted stainless steel chili pot that always had a fresh supply of chili to ward off the winter chill when you ran inside to warm up after standing outside to watch the horses in the post parade, are fond memories.

    I have lovely and funny memories of the place. Bowie is the finest race course on the east coast to this day. If you read where the most successful horses train at in Maryland you will find they most often train at Bowie. Shutting down Bowie would be a loss for the horses because the track itself it far superior to its counterparts.

    Marty Myer was the track super and with his skill as a farmer his kept the track perfect for the horses. Long after his death his track when maintained has been a friendly surface for legs.

    I remember the McCarron brothers learning their trade at Bowie. People would bet and swear by Chris but I never won a ticket on the guy. Many very good jockeys rode at Bowie. I recall Shoemaker landed in a helicopter to ride Kelso in the John B. Campbell and took off again after to ride a race in New York. The large parking areas made it easy to travel to Baltimore, Washington, and Virginia with all the nearby connecting highways.

    You would have the Bowie winter meet,a few days at Upper Marlboro, then the spring meet at Pimlico, a summer meet at Laurel, ten days at Hagerstown, a short meet at Pimilco, off to Timonium for the state fair at the end of summer, three days at Cumberland, back to Laurel for the International meet, and then back to Bowie. When they closed down Hagerstown they took the barns and put them in Laurel. Those barns are used to this day. It was racing days at Upper Marlboro that was the downfall of the Gov. Marvin Mandel.

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