--Sign at an old racetrack in Bowie, Maryland
Saving Pimlico and Laurel Park is noble and is an imperative, but the track I'm rooting for the most on the deeply distressed Maryland racing map is Bowie. Actually, Bowie is only a training center, and hasn't been a race track for more than 20 years, but there are ghosts rattling around that ancient plant, 35 miles from Baltimore, that don't deserve an indecent burial in the name of land development. In its time, Bowie was a winter respite for hardened horseplayers as far north as New York. It survived a train wreck, at least two fires that killed almost 100 horses, one of the greatest race-fixing capers that never reached fruition, and many a post-race drinking session thanks to the bonhomie of one Muggins Feldman, the track publicist. Feldman was so accommodating that if you didn't fancy the hard stuff, he had a fridge bulging with Pabst Blue Ribbon. Pabst Blue Ribbon in the heart of National Bohemian country? Well, the fact that the owner of Bowie also was the owner of Pabst, that might have had something to do with it.
The congenial, cigar-smoking Feldman, now with the dust, was there the first time I made a pilgrimage to Bowie, in the 1960s, and the trainer Gary Capuano was there the last time, in the spring of 1997. Capuano was preparing his top 3-year-old, Captain Bodgit, for the Wood Memorial and a little later the Kentucky Derby. I was in New York, with the rest of the horses scheduled to run in the Wood, and in a weak moment I decided to drive the more than 200 miles to Maryland for an interview. I didn't even have a cell phone then. "Here's my hotel number," I said to Capuano. "I'm going to leave at 3 in the morning. If for any reason you're not going to be able to be there, head me off at the pass."
On February 14, 1975, Valentine's Day, six jockeys lost their reputations at Bowie. The names of the ringleaders were Eric Walsh, Ben Feliciano, Jesse Davidson and Luigi Gino. They conspired to rig the last race that day, by holding their short-priced horses back and allowing longshots to fill out the three-horse trifecta. One of their brothers just happened to bet $684 in trifecta boxes, and the payoff would have netted the nefarious ring a grand total of $35,237. Davidson had been national riding champion; Walsh was said to be earning about $200,000 a year. By the time the payoff would have been divvied up, the shares were going to be minuscule, but track officials, smelling more than fish from the time the horses crossed the line, impounded the mutuel department and no money ever changed hands. A clever headline writer dubbed the scheme "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre."
Walsh, in his mid 30s, was no better at suicide than he was at cold-watering horses. It took him three tries before he finally died by his own hand. Davidson was sent to a federal prison where a cellmate was G. Gordon Liddy, one of the masterminds of the Watergate scandal. After losing his riding license, Gino worked any job he could find. He was once found as a flagman on a construction crew. By the 1990s, despite objections by those who said he should never work at a racetrack again, he was licensed as a trainer.
While there were jockeys who dressed Bowie in infamy, there were many more who enhanced its proud name. If you could ride at Bowie, in the snowstorms and arctic temperatures, you could ride anywhere, it was said around the country. By November of 1950, there was a fierce battle between Bill Shoemaker and Joe Culmone for the national riding title. This was during an era when such a title actually meant something. Now the jockeys keep score by purses money, and total wins mean little. To jack up attendance, Bowie brought in Shoemaker from California, and he and the Maryland-based Culmone rode on the same card. Shoemaker won the first race of the day, but none afterwards, and Culmone booted home six winners. He needed every one of them to share the crown--he and Shoemaker finished with 388 wins apiece.
Despite the brutal Maryland winters, Bowie enjoyed a reputation as a safe track for horses and jockeys, but during Bill Hartack's apprenticeship, in the early 1950s, a half-dozen jockeys went down in the first race alone. The riders voted not to ride the rest of the day, but Larry MacPhail, better known as a baseball executive, was president of Bowie then, and he came into the jockeys' room and promised the riders a double mount fee if they continued.
One of the jockeys asked a good question. "Mr. MacPhail, what happens if we ride and get killed?"
"Didn't you hear the man?" another jockey, by the name of Jimmy DelVecchio, said. "If we get killed, we get a double funeral."