Smooth track, smooth return to racing at Laurel Park

Sighs of relief all around.

Laurel Park’s return to racing Saturday went off without a hitch, and praise for the condition of the racetrack was widespread.

The track dried out quickly after plenty of Friday rain, fast horses ran fast, slow horses were slow, and most important, all of them returned to their barns under their own power.

“It’s quite muddy with all the rain that we got,” jockey Jevian Toledo said of the racetrack after his first of three stakes wins, aboard Nimitz Class in the Native Dancer, when the track was rated muddy and sealed. “But with all that, I think it’s in pretty good shape.”

“You see how fast he got it to dry?” trainer Jerry Robb asked after winning the Primonetta Stakes with Princess Kokachin five races later on a track rated good. “The guy’s good.”

“The guy” is former Maryland Jockey Club track superintendent John Passero, who has been retained by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association as a consultant. After several days of disagreement, the MTHA and track owner Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) reached accord this past Tuesday to permit Passero on the grounds to assess the condition of the track.

The delay stemmed in part from differing perspectives on what had caused several recent breakdowns and injuries. The state’s horsemen claimed the problems stemmed from a dirt racing strip they said was uneven and inconsistent. The Maryland Jockey Club maintained that the track was in perfectly good condition and urged Maryland instead to adopt a series of protocols the company says enhanced safety in California. 

After several days where horses had been limited to jogging and galloping, Laurel reopened Thursday to full training – and praise from racing participants.

“I can honestly say it was an amazing difference between the track once Passero came in and adjusted things,” Kelly Cox, a former clocker and the wife of trainer Kenny Cox, wrote on Faceook. “Every exercise rider and jockey noticed the difference.”

“Laurel track was great this morning,” jockey agent Tom Stift agreed in the same thread. “All riders and trainers very happy with all workers.”

Toledo certainly noticed the improvement.

“It was beautiful. I mean, before it had some bumps, before he was here,” the veteran rider said Saturday. “The first day he came, this track rode like a carpet. It was an excellent job; nobody complained, to be honest.”

That’s notable, both because riders risk life and limb each time they climb aboard – and because they had refused to ride April 8 because of track surface concerns.

“They’ve done a good job. John Passero has done good job with working and getting it good,” said rider Johan Rosado after winning the Dahlia Stakes aboard Misty Mauve. “It’s certainly good, and I believe [it’s getting better].”

For his part, Passero said that what he’s done is more in the realm of minor tweaks than major changes. Horsemen have great confidence in his work, dating back from his days as track superintendent here.

“I don’t think there’s any issues with the base [of the track],” he explained in an interview Thursday. “What I want to do is tweak the cushion a little bit and once you’ve done that, we just changed the operation of it. And really, the main thing is, just put a little less water in it and harrow the hell out of it.”

“Mr. Passero is doing a good job,” Toledo said. “So hopefully they’ll keep him and let him do his job the way he’s doing it.”