02/21/2011 12:19AM

Visiting Laurel Park


If you're a racing fan, and you probably are if you're reading this, go to Laurel Park.  

It's one of my favorite tracks - certainly in my top 5.  Perhaps the reason is best reflected in the stoic bronze of Billy Barton, who has been watching patrons come and go for some 50 years.  With his patina - green, rust, silver - streaming down his body, Billy stares toward the train platform from a stand near the main entrance.  I first saw Billy in 1993, and whenever I visit, I stop over to say hi.

Billy represents history, and Laurel's history shines throughout the property.   Pimlico might win the Battle of Maryland Racing History, simply due to the Preakness and the Seabiscuit-War Admiral matchup.  But imagine, there's been racing at Laurel for 100 years - no small feat nowadays - and the Washington, D.C. International - with a revolutionary concept of inviting foreign connections for a classic turf event - began its storied run in 1952.

Does anyone else remember those cute green International programs showing the dancing jockeys with their different flags?   

From the train platform, it's easy to imagine the crowds way back when - when racing was the legal form of gambling, and men in fedoras and women in dresses flocked trackside.  When stepping off the train, they saw LAUREL PARK prominently on the building.  And while the main draw was undoubtedly the horses and the betting, small touches - such as intricate horse head gold-toned reliefs along the roofline - added to the charm.


Laurel's racing hosted the best over the years - Kelso, Secretariat, Affirmed and Alydar, Spectacular Bid.  Even today, the wonderful circular paddock evokes images of yesteryear, and trainers like Dickie Small, with his old-fashioned attire, complete the look.  

Barbara Fritchie day at Laurel was enough excuse for me to make the 14-hour round trip.  With a weather forecast of sunny skies, pleasant temperatures, and 50-mph winds, why not?  Some very impressive fillies and mares have won the Barbara Fritchie, including recent fan favorite Xtra Heat.  The long honor roll includes Twixt, Too Bald, Skipat, Tosmah, Process Shot and Misty Galore.

The undercard feature, the John B. Campbell, also has a compelling history, although the race isn't native to Laurel (for years it was run at Bowie or Pimlico).  Past winners include In Reality, Social Outcast, Kelso, Mongo, Tosmah and Relaxing.  Most recently, the honors went to Richard's Kid and Redding Colliery.

Getting to Laurel early gives one the chance to take a look around.  Down one quiet hallway is a fascinating display of jockey silks and caps - colors of horses from old Internationals.  The colors are fading and the lighting makes reading the plaques difficult, but it's worth a look.

John Shapiro's idea of inviting top foreign horses for a turf event must have been met with skepticism, but just think of it!  Perusing the plaques proves the genius of the idea.  Sailor's Guide of Australia made the trip, and Germany had four entrants from 1952-58.  Ireland's Ballymoss ventured over, and England's Aggressor II, and Denmark's Wonderboy II. 

There are familiar American names including Social Outcast and T. V. Lark.  But more interesting, to me, is how many horses came from the U.S.S.R.   And two Irish runners, Panaslipper and Sail Cheoil, were apparently owned by "The Presidents of Ireland."  Who knew?

The Breeders' Cup undoubtedly helped seal the International's fate.  The last running came in 1994.  Paradise Creek was the winner.

One area of Laurel's grandstand sits dormant now, with the haunting feel of yesteryear intact in every corner. The colors and layout point squarely to the 1950s - but in a good way.  And unlike such areas at most tracks, Laurel is clean and it feels safe to walk around.  It's easy to picture the area some day reopening to bettors.

Speaking of patrons, the Barbara Fritchie day crowd was a good one - a blend of fans, from young to old.  The mood was positive and people seemed good-natured.  In speaking with some older racetrackers, it was clear, as they related stories from Laurel's past, that this is a venue still loved.

I look forward to the next time I can swing by and say hi to Billy.  I know he'll be waiting.


Above:  Artistic exterior touch at Laurel Park.  

Below:  the historic Laurel paddock.

Above:  Unused area at Laurel Park. 

Below:  Jockey silks representing Washington, D.C. International contestants.

Above: Charles, Bonivar and Styles - all former racehorses and now outriders' horses - pass the time between races.

Below:  the Laurel paddock details.

Above:  Sign at paddock entrance.  Good luck with that!

Above:  Rider self-promotions, on pants' legs, are very much in style at Laurel.  Geovany Garcia's pants reflect a sense of humor.

Below:  Sweet Goodbye, last year's Barbara Fritchie winner; Meese Rocks, who always tries her hardest; Holiday Boy on his way into the winner's circle after the 5th race; cute-faced Cobotown Ron before the John B. Campbell.

Above:  Jonathan Joyce (left), who, when he was very young - pre-teen - politely and quietly told everyone who would listen that he would some day be a jockey.  Julien Pimentel (right), who had two winners on the day's card.


Above photos:  Railroad platform/stop at Laurel - showing evidence of Laurel's 100 years.  

Below:  Unused mutuel windows.  Other areas at the track have vibrant, busy windows - but racetracks frown upon photography at betting windows.

Above, top row:  Harissa, Ramon Dominguez up, wins the Barbara Fritchie.  Second row:  Alma d'Oro, Cornelio Velasquez riding, winner of the John B. Campbell.

Below:  Eclipse Award winning Ramon Dominguez in a familiar role at Laurel, after winning the feature stakes.

Above:  Substitute silks.

Below:  Maryland trainers Richard "Dickie" Small (left) and Dale Capuano.


Above:  In Georgie's Honor (left) has quite an interesting face.  Aspenglow before her determined runner-up finish in the Barbara Fritchie.  And a pat for the winner, Harissa (right), as she heads to the test barn.

Above:  Light fixture at Laurel, and old light fixture at the train platform.

Below:  Waiting for the call of "Riders Up" in the paddock.



With thanks to Mike Gathagan of the Maryland Jockey Club.