Dogs up at Laurel Park. Photo by The Racing Biz.
Dogs are up at Laurel Park. Photo by The Racing Biz.

Simmering frustration about the condition of the Laurel Park dirt track boiled over at Thursday’s Maryland Racing Commission meeting as some Commissioners, most notably Konrad Wayson, lashed the Stronach Group over what they said was the company’s lack of forthrightness about the racing strip.

The Commission’s regular monthly meeting took place at Laurel Park, the first in-person Commission meeting since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Five of the nine commissioners – chairman Emmet Davitt, plus Wayson, Tammy Lafferty, Clarissa Coughlin, and Ernie Grecco – attended the meeting live, while three others did so by phone.

The monthly meeting also was the Commission’s first since the Stronach Group and Maryland Jockey Club were forced by the track condition to end the Laurel spring meet early and shift racing to Pimlico.

“I just want to say, ‘Thank God they didn’t close Pimlico,’” Grecco said.

But several commissioners were in a less prayerful mood, and they let Steve Koch, the Stronach Group’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, know it.

Koch, who is leading the track renovation project, came to tell the Commission of a project he said has “best-in-the-business resources behind it,” including the commitment of the company to undertake a “multi-million dollar project” and the presence of top consultants, including the well-respected Dr. Mick Peterson.

“We have been instructed by our leadership at 1/ST Racing to spare no expense,” Koch told the Commission. 1/ST is the public-facing brand of the Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, which in turn owns Laurel and Pimlico.

But Wayson, a horse owner who has pushed the issue of the racing strip repeatedly over the last several years, did not seem impressed. Citing reports going back “three or four years,” he said he and the Commission had been assured by the company that things were fine virtually up until the shutdown at Laurel.

“How do we go from nothing to shutting the whole thing down?” he asked. “The Stronach Group, I don’t think, is forthcoming with information about what’s going on out here.”

Commissioner Michael Algeo, a former chairman of the Commission, added, “We have spent years on the Safety Committee trying to get information on the safety of the track… There’s a level of frustration.”

Koch laid the blame for the track troubles in part on “wet, freezing conditions” during the winter months in Maryland. While the amount of precipitation during January-March was not especially notable, the 4.33 inches of precipitation the state experienced in February was the third highest since 2000.

But Koch also said that when the company peeled back the track cushion, they discovered that the base itself was in less than optimum condition.

“When we exposed the base, it seemed less than ideal to be laying brand-new, very expensive cushion on a base where there’s not total consistency,” Koch explained.

Thus, the team, which also includes longtime Santa Anita trackman Dennis Moore, as well as Maryland Jockey Club track superintendent Chris Bosley, decided to undertake what Koch described as a “total cushion replacement” along with “significant work” on the base of the track.

“You can’t shortcut the racetrack and have a safe, reliable surface,” he said.

The current crisis was spurred after two horses suffered fatal breakdowns inside the sixteenth pole on the same early April morning, both incurring unusual hind leg fractures, sources who were present reported. A third breakdown soon thereafter prompted the company to shut down the track to all except gallopers and to curtail the spring meet two weeks early.

But some trainers say the problems have been ongoing for some time.

“They’ve been complaining about horses stumbling past the wire for months,” said longtime Maryland trainer Jerry Robb in an interview. “It’s very frustrating to be a trainer right now.”

Robb, like Wayson, who previously had horses with him, points farther back than that, to a report the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA) commissioned by onetime Maryland track super John Passero a few years back.

“Passero’s report says they used the wrong base material [when the track was redone in 2005],” Robb said, a summary confirmed by other horsemen. “Everything down there is wrong.”

“I would say that a thorough resurfacing of the track is long overdue,” added Ferris Allen, another longtime local trainer and a member of the board of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

The track issues are, of course, fundamentally issues of safety for horses and riders. They are also matters of substantial economic importance to local horsemen, who now not only must ship horses to Pimlico to breeze but also face the potential loss of horses and even owners concerned about the quality of the Maryland facilities. That the state was hit with an outbreak of equine herpesvirus – the tracks just in the last week emerged from quarantine – only exacerbates the problem.

“I think all the horsemen are feeling the same,” said Laurel-based Brittany Russell. “I mean, it’s just hit after hit for the horsemen. It’s really tough.”

The track project currently underway is slated to be complete by the time the Pimlico Preakness meet ends May 31, Koch told the Commission Thursday, a point reiterated by 1/ST Racing COO Aidan Butler in a community Zoom meeting Friday morning.

While horsemen seemed a bit skeptical of that promise, they’re generally bullish that the project will resolve their concerns about the track.

“It does seem they’re doing it the right way,” Russell said.

And MTHA president Tim Keefe added, “I am optimistic that this will solve the problem. I’m less optimistic that this’ll be done by the end of the Pimlico meet, though I’m hopeful. But I’m convinced they’re going to put in the resources to fix the track.”