Track safety concerns prompt Laurel Park closure

In the face of continued track woes, the Maryland Jockey Club on Friday morning announced the suspension of live racing at Laurel Park “until further notice.”

The announcement came via text message to horsemen at 10:34 a.m.

According to Maryland Racing Commission chair Michael Algeo, today’s cancellation spikes racing for “a minimum of this weekend.” One possibility for future racing would be to kick off the Pimlico Preakness meet two weekends earlier than scheduled.

The decision to suspend live racing came following a difficult Thursday. Golden Pegasus, a four-year-old colt, was euthanized after suffering a catastrophic injury on the far turn in the fourth race, and one race later, six-year-old Bigmancan pulled up lame leaving the backstretch and had to be vanned off.

Those came on a day that began with what was described as a “contentious” meeting between horsemen and racetrack consultants brought in by Maryland Jockey Club parent company 1/ST Racing.

The decision to suspend racing marks the second day unexpectedly canceled in two weeks. The April 8 card also was shelved after two horses suffered fatal injuries during morning works, prompting jockeys to refuse to ride.

This latest cancellation came at the instigation of the Maryland Racing Commission, Commission chair Algeo said. Following the Thursday injuries, Algeo said he received several calls from anxious horsemen about the condition of the track, which prompted him to call Maryland Jockey Club acting president Mike Rogers.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to set a precedent of the Racing Commission coming in and saying we’re shutting down racing,’” Algeo recalled. “But based on the information I’m receiving, we’re going to have to do something.”

Subsequent conversations between Rogers and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association led to the agreement to pause live racing at Laurel, Algeo said.

But what happens next remains unclear. The track had had five stakes scheduled for Saturday, three on the turf and two on the main track. As of early Friday afternoon, horsemen had not been informed of when or where racing would resume, or what would happen to those stakes.

By mid-afternoon, the MJC had not yet released a statement on the pause, though Rogers had indicated one was forthcoming earlier in the day. Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA) president Tim Keefe had not returned a phone call seeking comment. A call to the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority also had not been returned.

The recent cancellations come at a particularly fraught time for the state’s racing industry. The ongoing track issues have frayed trust between the horsemen and the track operator; horsemen have groused about the surface for years, and a 2017 report by former MJC track super John Passero, commissioned by the MTHA, found significant problems with the track.

In addition, recent studies have made clear the challenges the industry faces with two aging facilities in desperate need of renewal. The funding available to solve the facility issues is widely acknowledged to be insufficient to the tasks at hand. And even whether the Stronach Group will remain involved in Maryland, and if so in what precise capacity, is uncertain.

The Laurel spring meet is currently scheduled to run through Kentucky Derby weekend before racing shifts to Pimlico for the Preakness meet.