The Laurel Historical Society celebrates a century at Laurel Park with its latest exhibit: And They’re Off! 100 Years at Laurel Park. The exhibit opened Feb. 6 and runs through December, 2011.
The Laurel Museum brings the park’s rich racing history to life with a view of life behind the scenes over the last 100 years, along with the impact Laurel Park has had on the area and its inhabitants. While Laurel Park changed its name to Laurel Race Course (about the time it added the Washington, D.C. International, a 1 ½ mile turf race), it reverted back to using the Laurel Park moniker in 1994.
Even if you’ve been in the area since the park’s inception, you’ll learn new things and relive old memories through the exhibit. The park has switched hands many times and has hosted events and celebrities that stretch way beyond racing.
Laurel Park opened in 1911, featuring high-wire acts, under its first owners Four County Fair. It evolved to include premiere racing events and legends in the racing field. In 1914, Col. Matt Winn, a whiz at promoting the racing industry, was hired as general manager at Laurel Park to put Maryland racing on the map. The idea was for him to work the same magic for Maryland as he did with Kentucky and the Kentucky Derby.
You’ll be treated to racing memorabilia such as jockey silks, old racing cards, photos from the winner’s circle, Secretariat, Kelso and Willie Shoemaker’s boot. As museum staff interviewed anyone and everyone connected in some way to those who made Laurel Park famous, they heard over and over that in terms of horse racing, the D.C. International is considered to be the most important race held at the park. You’ll even catch a shot of Elizabeth Taylor attending the event.
Part of the behind-the-scenes racing history weaves in current-day Laurel businesses as well. The Bedwells and the A.M. Koop family, custom shoe and boot makers, still operate a business on Main Street. Likewise, you’ll learn about the Miller family who raise, train and ride horses. The family boasts a Preakness-winning jockey, but you’ll have to visit the Laurel Museum to learn the details on that.
The notable names of Laurel Park stretch beyond racing. Many big names are with a particular event in 1969. Everyone remembers Woodstock held at Max Yasgur's Farm in upstate New York. What most don’t remember is Laurel Park’s Laurel Pop Festival that predated Woodstock by a month. The Laurel Pop Festival played host to Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa and Sly and the Family Stone, among others.
Laurel Museum workers and volunteers started planning for the exhibit four years ago, gathering up information of not just the racing “highs” of the park, but all of the things that go on behind the scenes. They want exhibit visitors to get a taste of the real Laurel Park through timeline panels, artifacts, and photography.
The Laurel Museum is located at 817 Main Street in Laurel, Maryland. Hours are Sunday 1:00-4:00 p.m., Wednesday and Friday 10:00 a.m.- 2:00 p.m. Group visits are available throughout the week by appointment, and the John Brennan Research Library is open Monday from 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. and by appointment. For more information visit www.laurelhistoricalsociety.org. The Laurel Park originally opened Oct. 2, 1911.
As the exhibit runs throughout the year, look for upcoming articles about Laurel Park and the Historical Society's exhibit, including a feature on Willie Shoemaker.