04/05/2002 12:00AM

Under Belair's manicured lawns lies history

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One of the racing industry's treasures is found in a most unlikely place. When you wind through the residential section of Bowie, Md., to reach the Belair Stable and Mansion museums, it is nearly impossible to fathom that more than 4,000 houses and many, many miles of paved streets cover the once immense estate that was Belair, a farm whose history goes back to the 1700's.

Until 1957, Belair was a lush paradise of 2,500 acres of fields, crops, and forests, and was home to some of the most illustrious Thoroughbreds ever produced on American soil.

An official grand opening of the restored Belair Stable, a brick carriage house, stable, and courtyard which occupies 1 1/2 acres, is planned for Sunday, May 19, as part of Bowie Heritage Day and Preakness Celebration week. The stable and mansion, a five-part brick Georgian-style house which stands one block away, are open year-round, Thursdays through Sundays, from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

The rise of Belair in its importance to Thoroughbred breeding and racing in the American colonies began during the 1740's. In the 1730's, Samuel Ogle and Benjamin Tasker Sr., both governors in the Maryland colony, purchased Belair and surrounding land, and the estate comprised more than 3,600 acres.

Ogle bought out Tasker's share in 1739 and, after marrying Tasker's daughter Anne, instructed his new father-in-law to oversee the building of the mansion while the newlywed couple resided in England. Ogle, twice commissioned as provincial governor of Maryland before his marriage, returned to Maryland with his wife in 1747 to begin his third term as governor, and the couple moved into their new dwelling.

Joining the Ogles on their return from England were the first two English-bred Thoroughbreds imported into Maryland: Spark, a grandson of the Darley Arabian, and Queen Mab, whose pedigree traced back to horses in the Royal Stud.

After Ogle died unexpectedly in 1752, Anne's brother, Benjamin Tasker Jr., took charge of the estate. It was during Benjamin Tasker's tenure that the nearly 100 tulip poplar trees that lined the sides of the carriage entrance to the mansion were planted. A number of those 250-year-old trees still exist and can be seen dotting a line through the development.

Benjamin Tasker's greatest Thoroughbred acquisition was the importation from England of the famed racemare Selima. A daughter of the Godolphin Arabian, Selima came to the colonies and proceeded to capture the biggest race of the era, a $10,000 stakes race held in Gloucester, Va., in 1752.

Selima produced 10 foals, nine of whom were celebrated race horses. Her foals by Othello, imported by Tasker along with Selima, included Selim and Ebony, the latter an ancestor of the great sire Lexington.

For more than 100 years after Benjamin Tasker's death in 1760, Belair underwent the fate of many estates, declining due to family bickering and neglect. The Woodward family would restore Belair's glory.

James Woodward purchased Belair in 1898 and built the stable, which is now a museum, in 1907. William Woodward inherited 2,500-acre Belair from his unmarried uncle following James's death in 1910.

With a growing interest in Thoroughbred racing, William Woodward began purchasing racehorses in the early 1900's, keeping them at Belair. Woodward's passion grew, and his success as well. Woodward bred the winners of two Triple Crowns - Gallant Fox and Omaha.

Woodward won the Belmont Stakes three more times, with Faireno, Granville, and Johnstown (who also won the 1939 Kentucky Derby), but didn't live to see his homebred Nashua, winner of the 1955 Preakness and Belmont Stakes less than two years after Woodward's death while carrying the famed red polka dots on white silks for William Woodward Jr.

The Woodward horses were foaled in Kentucky at Claiborne Farm, but after weaning were sent to Belair to develop. At Belair, the senior Woodward and his trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, would evaluate the crop. Often many of the Belair stars would return to the farm during breaks from the track.

The Woodward stable seemed destined to go on for another generation, but the shooting death of William Woodward Jr. after Nashua's championship season in 1955 marked the end of the era. The estate was sold to land developer William J. Levitt in 1957 and from it sprang residential Bowie.

Only efforts by the Bowie Heritage Committee saved Belair Stable in 1968. The mansion was sold by Levitt for one dollar to the City of Bowie with the stipulation that it be used for public purposes.

Since 1969, mostly volunteer efforts and a shoestring budget have kept the stable museum open. But in the past year and a half, with the influx of more than $750,000 for improvements and restoration, the museum now offers visitors detailed exhibits and displays collections of artifacts and artwork, overseen by the museum's assistant director Russ Davies.

"It is a continual work-in-progress," said museum director Stephen Patrick.