Laurel Park: Big anniversary, uncertain future

The 100th anniversary of racing at Laurel Park unfurled Saturday, Oct. 15, with much fanfare at the once-grand, now-fading facility that sits at the crossroads of Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties.

Along with a full card of live races on a nearly cloud-free afternoon, the crowd of 4,657 was treated to barbecue and beer specials and booths selling jewelry and handbags, cowboy hats and western wear. In a "Kids Craft Corral," children frolicked in a moon bounce, had their hair dyed and faces painted while parents lounged in the sunshine at picnic tables.

The track showcased medieval combat, basset hound and Jack Russell terrier races as well as a cupcake relay and assorted giveaways.

The track spent more than $100,000 on the 100th anniversary celebration, track president Tom Chuckas said.

Jockeys raised money for two Laurel schools during the day through a challenge that pitted riders representing Brock Bridge Elementary against those representing Maryland City Elementary.

With handicappers in the crowd lining the rail to size up runners during the post parades, or picking winners from their programs in front of simulcast monitors, the day was everything one could hope for at a racetrack on a fall weekend afternoon.

Behind the idyllic scene, however, hovered a sense of deep foreboding. The Maryland Jockey Club will run 146 days of live racing in 2011, but how many next year no one knows.

Chuckas did not deny rumors that owner Frank Stronach wants to run 40 days next year at Pimlico Race Course, the Baltimore home of the Preakness Stakes, and none at Laurel Park at all.

The state thoroughbred tracks have suffered a steep decline in racing quality and wagering in the past decade while failing to secure a license to operate slot machines on their premises. Racetracks with slots in surrounding states have pushed the Maryland tracks, once the undisputed leader in the Mid-Atlantic, to the bottom of the pile.

The spring meet at Pimlico, with the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, is the only time the Maryland Jockey Club turns a profit.

"I am really nervous about Maryland racing these days," said Bobby Lillis, the benefits coordinator for the Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund. "I'm hoping the horsemen and Stronach and management and the powers that be negotiate a better plan."

Changes coming

Last year, Stronach threatened to cut racing to just 77 days in the state but relented when Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley brokered an 11th-hour deal that subsidized track operations with slot machine revenues through 2012.

The deal stipulated management and the state horsemen come together and develop a five-year agreement to see Maryland racing safely into the future. Negotiations, not made public, are ongoing, track president Chuckas said. The Maryland State Racing Commission expects Chuckas to present dates for live racing at its monthly meeting in November.

"I think it's fair to say that, based on the last couple years, the way the Maryland Jockey club has operated is financially not viable," Chuckas said. "So changes have to occur. I don't know exactly at this point what the changes are. We're taking a look at a multitude of options. So, to answer your question, 'Is it going to be 40 days?' I can't say that. We, hopefully are trying to come up with a game plan that addresses the racetrack and Frank's needs from a financial standpoint, but also the horsemen's perspective of (desiring to run) 146 days."

Lillis said he worries about what would happen to all the employees of not only the track but all the disparate businesses that support racing if the live schedule were cut to 40 days. Laurel Park is conducting 117 days of live racing this year and currently running Tuesdays through Saturdays.

"The horse industry in Maryland really does employ 17,000 to 20,000 people when you come down to the farmers and the people who build the fences and feed the horses and hot walkers and mutuel tellers," he said. "Where are they going to go? And not to take anything away from the hot walker or the groom, but most of them don't have any other skills."

'We have to compete'

Trainer Linda Albert said management hasn't done enough to make Laurel Park successful.

"Unfortunately, since these guys have been in charge, Preakness Day is what saves us," said Albert, who lives in Bowie. "I don't know why we couldn't do better here (at Laurel), because it needs to be pushed more. It's sad; it's a sad facility. When I talk to friends, they say, 'Racing at Laurel? Really?' They don't even know it's going on.

"I'd like to see them put a little money in to make it look nicer, and I'd like to see them get Friday evening racing. That seems to work elsewhere. You walk in to Laurel and the TVs aren't working, the bathrooms are disgusting. If it's going to be 77 days or 40 days, what's the point? That's no living for me. We have to compete. I don't make money standing around the barn."

Albert has been coming to the races at Laurel since 1981 and started out in the business walking "hots" – horses that have just finished morning gallops. She recalled fond memories of watching a talented apprentice rider named Donnie Miller, the early career of the Hall of Famer Julie Krone, and the International Turf Festival, once a premier event in the racing world between 1952 and 1995.

"I remember seeing it on TV and was so proud of Laurel," she said. "It looked so beautiful."

Attracting newcomers

The track, despite its recent decline, has a majestic history. Much of it is stored in yellowing copies of the Daily Racing Form, dusty stacks of clip albums and 16-millimeter film canisters stacked below a long counter in the press box. Fraying labels attached bespeak a time of great prestige at Laurel, noting the presence of the Aga Khan and Princess Grace.

Laurel Park is the home of renowned trainer King Leatherbury, still active at age 78 and third on the all-time wins list. Jockey Kent Desormeaux set a world record when he rode 589 victories in 1989, primarily at Laurel. The Pimlico Futurity moved to Laurel in 1969 and subsequently was won by legends Secretariat, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and the ill-fated Barbaro.

Sitting outside on a grandstand bench at Saturday's anniversary celebration, Emily Brant, 20, of Laurel, and her parents, Randy and Chris, were attending horse races for the first time.

"I like it," Emily said. "I told my mom it looked like olden times. I already want to come back.

"We thought we'd come out for the birthday bash," Chris Brant said. "Then we found out we know one of the jockeys, Horacio Karamanos. I teach at St. Mary's and his daughter goes there."

Chris Brant made a $5 place bet on a horse ridden by Karamanos and won when it came in second.

Inside the grandstand, Peggy Elliott, of Edgewater, spoke of going to Laurel since she was a girl of 12. Now in her sixties, Elliott, who grew up in Burtonsville, said she used to go to the track every weekend but stopped about 10 years ago.

"I go to Charles Town now," she said of the racetrack in West Virginia that Laurel once dwarfed. "I bet on slots and races. I wish Laurel would get the slot machines."

This story has been corrected.

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