LAUREL PARK: RACING “AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN UNLESS MRC FEELS IT’S SAFE”
It seems fair to say that the Maryland Racing Commission’s patience with the ongoing track issues at Laurel Park has run out.
“I’m just shocked we’re back here again,” Maryland Racing Commissioner Konrad Wayson said midway through Tuesday’s spirited, and at times contentious, meeting of the Commission.
He wasn’t alone, but what’s more important is how the shock may translate to action. On that score, the Commission appears to be willing to take control of the situation.
“We have an obligation to act,” Commission chairman Michael Algeo said later in the meeting, adding. “We’re not running until it’s safe to run.”
Eight horses – one unraced, three two-year-olds, and all but one having made seven or fewer career starts – perished on Laurel Park’s extensively renovated main track between Nov. 6 and Nov. 28. It’s a stunning development on a racing surface completely refurbished between April and August.
And it’s a problem that, in a sense, has grown in size: both the Baltimore Sun and local television news have reported on it. That’s the kind of coverage that legislators in Annapolis, who don’t read the racing press, take note of, and that racing can ill afford.
The Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, 1/ST Racing, had canceled racing this past weekend and announced Tuesday it would not race during the upcoming weekend, either. They arrived Tuesday hoping to add a day to the racing calendar – December 16 – but left with neither the added day nor any other days. Not yet, at any rate.
“They decided to shut down: Okay,” Algeo said in an interview after the meeting. “They decided not to run this weekend: Good call. If they come in and say, ‘Well, we want to run this weekend [Dec. 16-19],’ then we’re going to have that discussion on Tuesday.”
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The Commission has scheduled a follow-up virtual meeting for Tuesday, December 14 at 12:30 p.m.
One area of frustration for some Commissioners is a feeling they’ve heard all of this before. Another is a sense that some at 1/ST Racing preferred to cast blame rather than solve problems.
“It’s not the track, it’s the trainers,” Wayson characterized that perspective.
But 1/ST Racing’s Aidan Butler hastened to reassure the Commission that the buck would stop with him.
“If I don’t think the surface is safe, we will not be racing at the Maryland Jockey Club, period, point-blank,” he told the Commission.
1/ST Racing and the MJC have retained Santa Anita track superintendent Dennis Moore and NYRA Vice-President of Facilities and Racing Surfaces Glen Kozak to consult on the track situation. The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has retained its own expert, former MJC and NYRA track super John Passero.
Calling them “a committee of the best that we can find,” 1/ST Racing’s Aidan Butler said the three men, along with racetrack expert and University of Kentucky professor Dr. Mick Peterson, are consulting on the current renovations and will serve as a decisionmaking group on future strategic decisions regarding the racetrack.
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He and Mike Rogers, President of 1/ST Racing who is also serving as interim president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said they believe the group of experts has identified the problems – an issue with a seam in the base and cushion material that lacked body, the latter of which was cited in an earlier report by The Racing Biz – and is working well together.
“I have a high degree of confidence in this plan going forward,” Butler said.
“I think everybody’s on the right direction,” Passero agreed.
Perhaps so, but the while the Commission is taking a wait-and-see approach, it is also saying that its days of taking a hands-off approach are done.
“If everybody’s in agreement, and we have Passero and the scientists and the other people that are supposedly experts come in and go, ‘We’re in great shape,’ then we can say, ‘Okay, do it,’” Algeo said. “The only time we’re gonna get involved is [if we need to] say, ‘No, you can’t run.’ That’s my position. It ain’t gonna happen unless the Commission feels it’s safe.”