Laurel Park gets Commission OK to resume racing

The Maryland Racing Commission on Thursday morning unanimously voted to allow racing to resume at Laurel Park, chairman Michael Algeo said. The telephonic vote came following morning works at the recommendation of track owner the Maryland Jockey Club, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA), and the MTHA’s track consultant John Passero.

Horsemen were eager to get their charges back to fighting fit, and more than 100 horses breezed Thursday morning.

“The track seems great,” said trainer Tim Keefe, also president of the MTHA. “It sounds good, and the feedback from some of the riders has been that it has good bounce to it, good support.”

Ten horses trained by Keefe were among those to breeze.

Laurel has scheduled an 11-race card, including five stakes, for Saturday, which is the first scheduled day back in action. There is a concern about impending weather, however, and in a text message to horsemen late Thursday morning, the MJC announced that Friday’s training at Laurel would be canceled “due to inclement weather coming and to ensure optimal track conditions.”

Saturday’s training at Laurel also may be canceled “depending on the amount of rain we receive.”

Racing at Laurel was spiked for three days last weekend after the Maryland Racing Commission called for a shutdown following a spate of equine injuries and five fatalities. The card scheduled for April 27 was canceled because of insufficient entries amid a boycott by some horsemen, and the Friday card also was lost while the sides wrangled over how to fix the problem.

Horsemen, believing the racing strip was the problem, had called for Passero to be brought in. He previously was the track superintendent at Laurel, and longtime local horsemen have great respect for his expertise.

The Maryland Jockey Club, by contrast, said their in-house expert, longtime Santa Anita track super Dennis Moore, had deemed the track safe. The company called instead for Maryland to adopt a series of practices and protocols it credits with having reduced the fatality rate at the company’s Santa Anita Park.

In a statement issued Wednesday evening, the company reiterated that call.

“[W]e are gratified that even before Mr. Passero completed his analysis that his recommendation to the Maryland Racing Commission supports the resumption of training at Laurel Park,” 1/ST Racing CEO Aidan Butler said in the statement. “We have not had the opportunity to discuss with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association their statements to the press as to the resumption of racing but reiterate our position as to track safety and the strong rationale for putting in place our industry standard best practices for horses and riders.” 

On Tuesday, staring down the barrel of a well-attended emergency meeting of the Commission, the sides finally agreed that Passero would be permitted to perform an assessment of the track. With things seemingly headed in the right direction, the Commission felt comfortable in giving the thumbs-up to racing’s return.

The MTHA also had pushed for racing to move immediately to Pimlico, where it is scheduled to start May 11. That would have the dual benefits of giving Passero and his team, who sources said had identified relatively minor issues, more time to work on the track and dimming the white-hot spotlight the industry has been under since the fatality issue came to light.

Such a move, however, does not seem to be under consideration.