by Frank Vespe

Not too long ago, a racing official with whom I was chatting lamented year-round racing.  “It just gets to be a grind,” the official said.

Maybe so.

But here in Maryland, where we’ve gone more than three months without racing (with the exception of the fun oddity of the Timonium meet), well, that dead space is its own kind of grind.  A grind which, mercifully, is about to end.

On Thursday, racing returns to Maryland’s “mile tracks” for the first time since Belmont day, and if you don’t think that’s a long time, think about what’s happened since.  For example…

  • Wise Dan ran his winning streak to nine with three more wins, including a track-record setter in his most recent, the G1 Woodbine Mile, while…
  • Game on Dude added two more Grade 1 wins to his already impressive haul, and of course…
  • A relative unknown named Dance to Bristol thrust herself into the national conversation with three straight graded wins, two at Saratoga, the last her first G1, in the Ballerina, while…
  • PA-bred Princess of Sylmar earned two more Grade 1 victories and moved decisively to the head of her class, and…
  • Moreno broke his maiden at Belmont the day Pimlico closed.  Since then he’s won the G2 Dwyer, finished third in the G2 Jim Dandy, and missed winning the G1 Travers by thismuch, which is more than we can say for….
  • Verrazano, who put aside his Kentucky Derby defeat to absolutely destroy his rivals in the G3 Pegasus and G1 Haskell, both at Monmouth, before finishing seventh as the chalk in the Travers, and…

You get the picture.  A lot of water has flowed under the racing bridge since the last time any of it took place in Maryland.  Turns out that 103 days is a pretty long time.

Happily, that comes to an end tomorrow at Laurel Park at 1:10 p.m.  It’s not, perhaps, the most auspicious start to a meet — $5,000 never-won-three claimers going nine furlongs in the first race — but that’ll change soon enough.  On Saturday, the central Maryland track hosts seven stakes races, including the De Francis Dash.

Talk to Maryland horsemen, and you can hear a tone in their voices, of happiness, of relief.  “Sure have put a lot of miles on the truck,” one told me the other day with a rueful smile.  We’re fortunate, in the mid-Atlantic to have an armload of tracks within an easy drive, but being able to ship somewhere isn’t quite the same as racing in your own back yard.

The key to the meet, of course, will be whether those same horsemen back their enthusiasm up with entries.  Early returns are promising, especially on the lawn; 46 horses are entered in the three grass races slated for Thursday, with 48 more on Friday.

There’s reason beyond the simple return of racing to be optimistic in Maryland.  Slot revenues are flowing, boosting purses to levels competitive with our nearby, slots-infused neighbors.  The 10-year agreement on racing days and other matters provides stability that’s been sorely lacking in recent years.  And the recently announced agreement (here) on owner, breeder, and stallion bonuses  — achieved without even the ritual bloodletting among the participants we’ve come to expect — should, when fully mature, put Maryland-breds on something like a par with those horses bred in other Midlantic states.

Which isn’t to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows in the Free State.  The schedule for next year is not yet set, and sources are saying that that portion of the purse account which the horsemen can use at their discretion will be stretched thin, as they try to pay for new stalls at Laurel and buy days beyond the 100 the track will run, among other changes.  The increasing number of casinos — Baltimore will come online soon, and Prince George’s County in a couple of years — will put more money in the purse account, but what impact will it have on live and import handle at the tracks?

Nothing — least of all the future — is set in stone.

Still, racing’s back, and that’s a start.

Maybe, come February, when a midweek card filled with bottom claiming races and hopeless maidens takes place in a cold, gray rain, we’ll think about what a grind the racing calendar is.

For now?  Heck, even race nine, an $8,000 maiden claimer on the dirt, has a full field of 12 with a lukewarm, 5-2 favorite.  There’s money to be made.

(Featured image by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.)