Belair Stable Museum and Maryland Racing

Oct 14th 2010 03:49 pm |

This past weekend, I finally checked off something that has been on my list of things to do for many years. My friend and fellow racing historian Teresa from Brooklyn Backstretch visited the Belair Stable Museum in Bowie, Maryland

The museum is housed in a stable building that is all that remains of a breeding operation that started in the middle of the eighteenth century. The building itself dates to around 1910, the period after William Woodward Sr. inherited the farm from his uncle, who had purchased it at the end of the nineteenth century. Prior to the purchase by the Woodward family, the Belair farm had been owned by five generations of the Ogle family, who started breeding race horses there in 1745.

During the period when the Ogle family owned the land, they bred horses whose bloodlines live on in many of today’s thoroughbreds. Selima, considered one of the foundation mares for the American race horses, bred ten foals at Belair after being purchased by Samuel Ogle in 1752. The farm remained in the Ogle family until 1871. In 1898, James T. Woodward, the New York banker and prominent figure in thoroughbred racing, acquired the Belair property.

It was James’s nephew, William Woodward Sr., racing under the name Belair Stud Farms, who built a legacy of champions that few could match during the first half of the twentieth century. Under the direction of Woodward, Belair Stud bred two Triple Crown winners, the “father-son” combination of Gallant Fox and Omaha, in addition to, numerous stakes winners and five winners of the Belmont Stakes. Gallant Fox and Omaha were foaled in Kentucky but brought to Belair as weanlings and raised there before being sent off for training and racing (this was the process followed for much of Belair’s history under Woodward).

After the death of William Woodward Sr. in 1953, the operation fell to his son. While initially disinterested in the Thoroughbred operation, success with the great Nashua in 1955 sparked an interest for the young Woodward. Tragically, in that same year, William Woodward Jr., was accidentally shot and killed by his wife in their home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. In 1957, the vast 3,200 acres of land, home to two centuries of horse breeding, was sold to William Levitt, father of the Levittown and, for better or worse, modern day suburbia.

The current building that houses the Belair Stable Museum was saved by the City of Bowie when they purchased it from William Levitt.  If it were left to Levitt, all physical evidence of Belair Stables would have been entirely swallowed up by housing development.

Today, the city of Bowie represents the great legacy and the unfortunate failure of racing in the state of Maryland. Not only is Bowie home to the Belair Stable Museum but it’s also home to the Bowie racetrack. Bowie opened in in 1914 and closed in 1985 — it stood just a few miles from Belair. The track now continues as a training track but the grandstand is gone along with the hopes of a racing revival there.

Russ Davies — the museum facility specialist in charge of the Belair stable–served as a wonderful guide for us on Sunday. He now stands watch over the town’s racing legacy at the museum.  He is a perfect caretaker. He has lived in Bowie much of his life, has been to racetracks all over the country and saw many of the greats including Secretariat at Laurel. He still keeps a (losing) $50 win ticket on Damascus among his personal collection of racing memorabilia; he worked as a trainer for a number of years; and, visited the Bowie Racetrack countless times during his life including the final day of racing in 1985. He’s a passionate about racing and a wonderful steward of the museum — if you are ever in the area, I encourage you to stop by for a visit.  Russ will be happy to see you and will surely share a memorable story or two.

Be sure to check out Teresa’s post and pictures from our road trip

Here are some pictures of the Belair Stable Museum:

The restored stables at Belair

Nashuas plates from the Belmont Stakes and Belmont Futurity.

A sign honoring the great Gallant Fox that hung at Belair when it was still in business.

All that remains of the Belair Stud Farm.


Filed in Belair Museum,Belair Stud Farm,thoroughbred racing history

11 Responses to “Belair Stable Museum and Maryland Racing”

  1. A damned shame! The Woodward legacy and Belair deserved a much better fate.

    For better or worse, “accidentally shot” has been considered a euphemism for the last 55 years. That was a damned shame too.

    Interesting update on the grand old place.


  2. Marcia Carty says:

    I remember going to find Belair stable when I was working at Bowie race track back in the 70’s. It was just sitting there and going to waste. I remembered being sadden by that as it was history, Maryland and the Country’s racing history. I thought about the great horses that may have been housed there. And the mansion itself was the City offices or something like that. I went in but of course couldn’t see much. The home stood on a hill over top of a valley of homes. You could see it from the road. I am so glad that the stables were saved. Thank you Bowie and thank you Russ! If I ever get back to Bowie I will be sure to visit.

  3. Laura says:

    You have to visit the Belair Mansion next time you’re in the area too !! It’s within walking distance from the Stable Museum.

  4. Aggie Bane says:

    We gotta go see this.

  5. Sid Fernando says:

    Thanks for this piece, another great stroll through history.

    What many people forget or didn’t know was that the Woodward legacy did continue, though not through the late son. Instead, the daughter, Edith Bancroft, flew the famous white/red poka dots silks of Belair on her champion Damascus (and others), and her two sons, Tom and I forget, campaigned many offspring of Damascus as Pen-Y-Bryn Farm, including Zen and Honorable Miss.

  6. Pam Williams says:

    Thanks so much for your wonderful write-up, Kevin, and we are delighted you enjoyed your visit. Russ is our resident expert – we are very fortunate to have his encyclopedic knowledge of racing to call on!

    Belair Plantation/Farm/Stable has indeed graced Bowie’s landscape since the early 18th century. Our racing history is long, rich and legendary. The first Thoroughbreds (Spark and Queen Mab) brought to this country for the specific purpose of improving the breed, and consequently colonial racing, came here to Belair in the mid-18th century. As the home of the only father/son horses to win the Triple Crown, we hold a special place in racing history. We work diligently to keep that history alive!

    Please do visit…we’re open Tuesday through Sunday, Noon-4, admission is free. We’re 15 miles from D.C., about 20 miles from Baltimore, and just 10 miles from Annapolis. Directions are on our website

    Pam Williams
    Manager – Historic Properties
    City of Bowie

  7. Hoffmann says:

    Another excellent article from Colins Ghost. Thanks Again!

  8. Eileen Lynagh says:

    I have a question. Was Belair Stables ever associated with The Belair Hiring and Boarding Stables which my great grandfather was the proprietor ? of sometime before his death in 1866. These livery Stables were located at 431 N. High Street in Baltimore, Md. His name was George W. Ziegler. Thanks for your help.
    Eileen M. Lynagh

  9. Ellen Cohn says:

    Fittingly, I searched for Belair Stud farm to see if the Museum still stands and thank you for the pics and story. I grew up in Maryland- and as a young racing fan took pride in its legacy and history –although I was too young for the glory days of Belair. I visited the site shortly after it became an official museum and was very much still in the rough. I did get to peer into, even walk into the stalls of the old champions. Fittingly, Woodward’s daughter, Edith Bancroft brought the Belair colors back with her yet-to-become champion, Damascus who went on to win one of the most exciting Woodwards!!

    I looked to see if it still stood in line with the controversy about what Oshawa, Canada should do with Windfield Farms and the remains of the great Northern Dancer. What was done at Belair serves as a model–although it is little known and now off the beaten track.

    Another remaining, living contribution of Belair Stud were the bequeathed library to Prince George’s County and the Selima Room- a valuable resource. Laura Hillenbrand credited it in her writing of Seabiscuit.

  10. Margaret Schmale says:

    My nephew pointed out to his horse crazy aunt that Belair Stables and Museum was within walking distance of his house. I could not believe that it existed inside of this sprawling housing development, but there it was.

    I was allowed to walk around the grounds by myself that morning and I could imagine the snorting horses waiting for morning feed, the hustle and bustle of the grooms and trainers, the jockey’s shaking off sleep and preparing for the morning gallop.

    The stable itself is so very modest. The bricks echo the clatter of hoofs and wash buckets. The stalls housed famous winners and yet look like a simple boarding stable. The hot rack circle in the middle of the yard is quiet and landscaped, but many horses walked miles around that small enclosure. It was not necessary to hear the recorded horse sounds, there was so much history in that little yard, it rang out with life from the past.

    I was told the colors have not been retired. I found that a comfort. If you are a part of the racing industry this should be a mecca for you. I’m not and still found the place amazing. It was a highlight of my visit to Maryland.

  11. Katrina O'Neal says:

    How lovely to stumble on this site after doing some research. I grew up in the Somerset section of “Belair at Bowie”. We were one of the earliest occupants– I think we were 83rd!! Only Somerset was there. I was 8 and still recall finding the occasional horseshoe. Later, as an adult, I worked at Bowie and still later…I worked for David Whitely (son of Frank). In fact, I hot-walked Honorable Miss and Icecapade.
    Haven’t been back to MD in years…nice to see it’s being well-preserved. And a shame about Bowie closing…