By Len Chapel
“And they’re off…..”
I can still remember those words as they reverberated loudly throughout the grandstand and clubhouse of the old Bel Air Race Track. Gone are the track, the horses, the people, the trumpeter’s ‘Call to post’, and the announcer’s ‘call’ of the race from “And they’re off” to “Down the stretch they come…”. Those days ended for me in 1957 when we moved, and for everyone else in 1966 when the track closed, but the memories endure.
In the mid-1950s, I was just a kid…born in 1946…trying to earn a little spending money to buy the niceties of that era that all kids wanted, and one of the ways I did so was by hawking newspapers at the race track. I can vividly remember my ‘chant’ of “Hey, late Nine-Star News (the defunct News American) and Sunpaper here!”, hoping to sell a newspaper for five-cents…one I had paid three-cents for from the supplier that brought them up from Baltimore.
We would come home from school and head straight to the race track…a short walk from Bill Hicks’ Lone Pine Trailer Park where we lived. The park is long gone, as is ‘Pop’ Hicks. His brother, Henry, was the caretaker for the Bel Air Race Track during the long off-season. He, too, is gone. The only other thing that happened at the race track was the Harford County Fair held each August, but that is another story left for another day.
Most of the paper-sellers were old…or they seemed so to me at the time…and due to the pecking order, they were always the first in line to get newspapers for resale when the truck arrived. These same older ones also commanded the ‘prime’ selling locations. I remember some of them running me out of the clubhouse…they wanted the big-tippers to themselves…so I was left to bottom-feed on the poorer of the bettors…the ones who would give me a dime and then stand and wait for their nickel change.
There were quite a few ‘sellers’, but my best memories were of just three; my older brother, John, and two Rexroth brothers, Ralph and Robert. The older ones that chased me/us off the prime locations are of no concern…now…so I don’t remember their names. No need to. We youngsters did our best to earn what we could during the short amount of racing dates awarded to the track, and we did fairly well…even at two-cents/paper.
One instance, even after all these years, stands out over all the others. I was positioned at the base of the walkway ramp located at the western end of the grandstand selling late edition newspapers containing the scratch sheets for all the tracks. Folks were buying them before rushing to get another one of the tracks for the night racing. This one particular day, a gentleman came by me and bought a newspaper, handing me a dollar. As I dug for his change, he said, “Keep it, son. I had a good day.” He left. I smiled. I had just hit the lottery!
On more than one occasion, as I headed home I stopped by a house on Toll Gate Road where a Black family lived. They made some extra money selling parking spots and running a food stand that catered to the track’s patrons. It was hard to pass by the delightful aroma of one of my favorite foods…fried chicken. So there I was, buying fried chicken with my earned money…and dinner waiting on me less than a scant quarter-mile away. So what…I was a growing boy, and those folks did chicken right!
Some days we had to wait on the newspapers to arrive, and on those rare occasions we slipped into the grandstand to watch a race or two. We even bet on a race now and again…amongst ourselves…a nickel. If no one’s horse won, we each got our money back. Many a grey I picked, not always winning either. Happens.
I can remember horses ‘breaking down’ during a race. One such time was in front of the grandstand, and they euthanized the horse then and there…not with a needle like they do today. Different kinds of ‘shots’ were used in those days.
Memorabilia from the race track exists from photographs to the furlong poles to sections of the railing. The track dump was a playground for us kids, as was the water storage on top the hill beyond the third turn. Many Harford Countians ate Pennsylvania mushrooms grown in the horse manure generated at the track, too. Ahhh, the smell of memorabilia.
The Bel Air Race Track was in operation for nearly one-hundred years until its closing, and the song says it well…“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. The land is now occupied by the Mall, the stores behind the Mall, and the condos behind that.
I miss the track. I miss the horses. I miss the people. I miss the trumpeter’s ‘call to post’. I miss the announcer’s call. I wonder if they ever missed me.