By Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun
7:35 PM EST, January 3, 2012
Maryland horse racing may be on shaky ground, but Laurel Park in winter is still appealing to a number of trainers from outside the state.
With the 48-day winter meet set to begin at Laurel Park on Jan. 4, and the weather growing colder up north, Laurel appears to be a popular haven.
Twenty-five new trainers have brought their horses here, which is more than in years past.
"The New England boys have been coming here for years, after their tracks' seasons end," Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary Georganne Hale said. "Plus, with Delaware's backstretch closing this year, I'm getting some Delaware guys now. And, my purses aren't horrible. They've improved some [with the slots money]."
Though it seems Maryland horse racing is on the brink at the end of every year as the Maryland Jockey Club and the horsemen debate the merits of year-round racing and take a deal on the following year's racing dates down to the last minute, out-of-state horsemen continue to come here and remind the locals that there are a number of reasons to feel good about the racing program and their facilities.
Though summer racing is a distant memory and Pimlico Race Course closes its barns after a short spring meet, the state still has the distinction of being one of few that still support year-round racing, keeping barns open at Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center even when the tracks are closed for the summer.
"I tell the trainers around Boston that they should come to Laurel," said trainer John Assimakopoulos, who with his father Charles has been coming south to Laurel Park for the last seven years. "The thing my father and I found here is that everybody treats us with respect and kindness. I tell trainers at Suffolk Downs, when the track closes they should come here instead of resting their horses or going to Florida.
"I tell them we're treated like gold here. I love Maryland racing and if they could ever get a three-year deal worked out with 100 plus days, I think they'd be seeing a lot more trainers coming. The worse thing for a trainer is uncertainty — days or no days, racing or no racing."
This winter, Delaware Park closed its backstretch barns at the end of its season, Dec. 15. Among the trainers who moved their horses to Maryland were Tom Iannotti and Jamie Ness, who are both here for the first time.
"We like the surfaces at Laurel Park and Pimlico," Iannotti said. "And the people in Maryland have treated us tremendously. Maryland does the best job of making all different kinds of races for the horses we all have. For the cheaper runners, allowance races, young horses, better horses. Maryland does a very good job of trying to fill all types of races."
Hale said she loved seeing the new blood come in the late fall. It's the time of year when the turf horses leave the track for the farm, and she needs horses to fill out those race cards.
"It's nice having the boys come," Hale said. "They carry us through the winter."
Ness, the second winningest trainer in the country, said Laurel Park seemed "a perfect match" for him and his horses.
"We had strings at Delaware, Penn National and Tampa Bay and then Delaware was closing and Laurel was just down the road," he said during a cell phone call from Tampa Bay. "Now we have 30 of our 80 horses at the Bowie Training Center. . . . What we've found is that Maryland does things the right way for their horsemen. I have no plans to move my horses out of there."
Ness said he believes economics have had an impact on the increased numbers at Laurel. He points to the increasing expense of taking horses all the way to Florida.
Maryland's relatively mild weather also makes it a good winter stop. And Ness, 36, and others also point to the appeal of the track surfaces here that are recognized as among the best in the country.
Ness settled into Laurel Park by winning the track's fall meet title with 34 wins from 112 starters.
"We like to run our horses," Ness said. "Some of us are of a younger generation and sometimes that makes things better. The game is changing and you have to keep up. The more horses, the more trainers, the more interesting the races become, is the way I look at it."
Dane Kobiskie, another out-of-towner, won the trainer of the year title with a total of 58 wins, 21 ahead of Maryland native Dale Capuano. Kobiskie, though, isn't a new arrival. He came to Maryland in 2005 as a jockey prior to becoming a full-time trainer in 2008. But this was his first year-end title.
"In Maryland there are a lot of old school trainers who all have connections with each other," said Kobiskie, who will turn 33 on Jan. 4. "And a lot of them have agreements not to claim horses from each other. There's not a lot of young blood. Me and Jamie Ness are aggressive in the claiming box. He's the second leading trainer in the country, and we claim horses from each other all the time.
"I do feel the animosity from some local trainers. A lot of trainers resent the out of state trainers who win. But I'm not as disliked as I used to be. Jamie has come in and made me more acceptable."
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