MTHA, MJC reach 11th-hour deal on way forward on Laurel track surface

A last-minute agreement between the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA) and 1/ST Racing, parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC), averted one nightmare scenario but left unresolved a major question.

As the latter question – when racing will resume again – stay tuned. That will not be resolved until the condition of the Laurel Park racing strip is deemed safe for racing.

The agreement, reached minutes before an 11:00 a.m. emergency meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, permits John Passero, the former Maryland Jockey Club track superintendent who is working as a consultant to the MTHA, to enter the grounds, analyze the track, and perform the tests or activities necessary to determine the condition of the track and to formulate recommendations as to what should be done with it.

Concerns about Laurel’s dirt surface have bubbled over after several recent equine fatalities and injuries.

Craig Fravel, chief executive officer of 1/ST Racing, termed the document an “access agreement” in remarks to the Commission and did not commit his company to any specific actions beyond permitting the access and conferring with the MTHA about how to respond to Passero’s findings.

“The agreement does not spell out” an action plan, Fravel noted.

Passero’s independent evaluation “will begin promptly, and the parties agree to confer in good faith to review and assess any findings,” 1/ST added in a statement.

“We got it done,” said trainer Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “It was an 11th-hour agreement, but it came together.”

“We’re in a better position today than we were yesterday,” noted Commission chairman Michael Algeo.

Racing at Laurel was canceled April 8 after jockeys refused to ride following two equine deaths that morning. It was canceled again this past weekend at the behest of the Commission after one horse was euthanized and two others vanned off during Thursday’s live racing card.

Many horsemen boycotted the entry box when the MJC tried to draw for the April 27 card, leading to its cancellation for lack of entries, as well.

As for when racing might resume at Laurel, that ball now rests in the Commission’s court. Algeo, the chairman, had said in a Saturday interview that the Commission would not permit racing to resume until it was satisfied in the safety of the racing strip. He reiterated that at today’s meeting.

“Racing will not resume until this Commission says it can,” Algeo said. “Safety and welfare is the single most important thing we have. We cannot afford to get this wrong; we have to get it right.”

Dogs up at Laurel in 2021. Photo by The Racing Biz.

A fundamental disagreement as to the cause of the injuries has been a major sticking point in resolving the issues. While horsemen believe the condition of the dirt racing surface is to blame, 1/ST Racing maintains that the surface is safe and points instead to a series of safety protocols the company pushed through in California as needed in Maryland.

The hiring of Passero is a step towards breaking up the logjam. He is held in high regard by longtime Maryland horsemen, and they are likely to support the conclusions he reaches and the recommendations he makes.

Keefe said he hoped to have Passero back on the grounds working “as soon as tomorrow morning.”

Algeo said the Commission would entertain a request from stakeholders to resume racing once Passero deems the surface safe for racing and training. In addition to the lost racing days, horses at both Laurel and Pimlico have been limited to jogging and galloping only during morning exercise for five consecutive days.

“The agreement is that they’ll come back to us with that assessment. And then we’ll make a decision then,” Algeo said.

Scores of horsemen turned out for the meeting in a remarkable display of unity. Though a public comment period had been on the agenda, there were no public comments.

Horsemen were generally measured in tone regarding the new agreement.

“I’m happy we reached an agreement,” said David Hayden, a breeder and owner with four horses stabled at Pimlico. “But the devil is in the details, and we don’t have the details yet.”

“I just want us to be able to race and race safely,” agreed Brooke Bowman, an owner and breeder who had written an impassioned Facebook post on the topic. “I hope that’s the outcome of this, but I think that’s to be determined.”

“These are issues that could have been resolved within minutes and hours that took days and days to solve,” said trainer Ferris Allen, a member of the MTHA board of directors. “It speaks to the dysfunction of the situation. We need to have a hard look at our racing surface.”

Following the April 20 racing card, the horsemen’s group had urged the MJC to move racing to Pimlico while Laurel’s surface issues were examined. That idea was rejected by the MJC, but some horsemen continue to believe it’s the proper outcome, particularly given the heightened scrutiny the industry is now under.

Regardless, the agreement will give the Commission one tool it didn’t have previously: a surface assessment by a track expert in whom Maryland horsemen have the highest level of confidence.

“I’m relieved. I’m not sure I’m satisfied,” Algeo said. “I’m relieved that we were able to get here, because there was just no other alternative.”

He added, “As soon as the Commission is satisfied we can race safely, riders up.”