Md. Racing Commission: No racing until “independent assessment” of track

An already trying situation in Maryland grew more difficult over the weekend, but sources said a potential resolution may be coming into focus.

What several people termed a “horsemen’s boycott” spiked Laurel Park’s next scheduled live racing day April 27. The Maryland Jockey Club renewed its efforts in an attempt to race April 28, but, while sources said several races had filled, in a text sent at 4:20 p.m., the company said it would continue accepting entries on Monday.

None of which may matter unless the Maryland Racing Commission signs off on it.

“You can quote me: racing ain’t happening until the Racing Commission says it’s happening,” Commission chair Michael Algeo said Saturday evening. “You can take that to the bank. They can have 5,000 entries, but ain’t nobody running until we sign off.”

The Commission has scheduled an emergency meeting at 11:00 a.m. on April 25 at Laurel to address the issues with Laurel’s dirt track.

Trainer Tim Keefe, the president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said Sunday afternoon he had had “productive dialog” with executives from MJC parent company 1/ST Racing and was hopeful a resolution to the situation may be at hand.

The track had canceled racing April 8 after riders declined to ride following two morning fatalities. This weekend’s three lost days, plus the spiked April 27 card, bring to five the number of scheduled racing days lost this month.

Algeo said that his condition for permitting racing to resume was for the racetrack to pass an assessment by “an independent track superintendent who goes out and looks at this says, ‘I think it’s safe’ and we get an agreement that everybody’s on board.”

Maryland law permits the Commission to “place an expert accountant or other individual in the office, track, or place of business” of a racetrack operator and to “require [the track operator to] pay the salary and expenses” of that person.

In an April 22 letter, Keefe and Maryland Horse Breeders Association president Kent Murray encouraged the Commission to take that step and to retain former MJC track super John Passero as its outside expert. Longtime Maryland horsemen almost unanimously swear by Passero’s work when he oversaw the tracks here, a comfort level that would add credibility to any conclusion he reaches.

Saturday night the MJC had issued a statement saying that it “continually engage[s] in proactive analysis of our racing and training surfaces,” identifying “a battery of tests” it said that longtime Santa Anita Park track super Dennis Moore and his team had conducted.

“Based on these tests and their professional knowledge, our track experts have advised that there are no issues with the track and that it is safe to race and train,” the statement said.

Many horsemen disagree with that assessment. Thursday’s five dirt races saw one fatality, two horses vanned off, and one claim voided because of post-race unsoundness.

One jockey agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Racing Biz that Friday morning the jockeys had “concerns” about the surface but that the decision to cancel came independently of them. The Racing Biz previously reported that the cancellation had been instigated by the Racing Commission.

The MJC has maintained a strong position that the track is not to blame, and it reiterated that in its Saturday statement. Instead, it calls for horsemen to adopt enhanced safety protocols it credits with reducing fatalities at the company’s Santa Anita Park after it experienced a spike a few years back.

“While we all know that catastrophic injuries will not be eliminated completely it is clear from the above that our track is not the issue, and we urge the Commission and the MTHA to take advantage of the proven enhancements to improve horse safety,” the company wrote.

After five lost racing days thus far in April, the Commission, Algeo said, will be the judge of that.

“It’s the jockeys who wanted to cancel [April 8], and it’s horsemen who wanted to cancel,” Algeo said. “They’re the ones putting their lives on the line, and our job is to protect the horses and them.”