Steeplechase racing began the first of a four-day stand yesterday at Laurel Park, but it was not a pretty sight.
Despite the best-laid plans of the National Steeplechase Association -- which stipulates that starters at Laurel must have demonstrated enough expertise over fences to have finished a course -- just about the worst-case scenario occurred.
Three riders were sent to area medical centers after spills in the first race, including one jockey, Simon Hobson, who was airlifted by Medivac helicopter to Prince George's General Hospital.
One horse, Standish, was euthanized after breaking his shoulder in a fall in the first race, and two runners in the second race suffered bowed tendons. At one point in the first race, two fallen horses lay winded on the course for an estimated five to 10 minutes.
Hobson, steeplechasing's fourth-leading jockey, was pitched off even-money favorite St. Elias at the fifth of 13 hurdles set up on Laurel's turf course, and was kicked in the stomach by a trailing horse after he fell.
Initial tests indicated that the English-born jockey will be all right, although he remained at the hospital last night. St. Elias was not hurt.
Cort Marzullo, who rode the ill-fated Standish, was taken by ambulance to Laurel-Beltsville Hospital, where he was treated for facial and head injuries and later released.
Andrew Durnin, who came off Midnight L'Amour when the horse fell at the first race's 10th hurdle, complained of a collarbone injury and went for X-rays by his own doctor at a hospital in Delaware.
"Nobody likes to see this happen," said NSA spokesman Joe Clancy Jr. "It's certainly more the exception than the rule. Maybe it happened at Laurel because the ground is flat, the horses go a little faster than at [country] hunt meetings and the distance [2 1/8 miles] is a little shorter."
Tom Voss, the trainer from Monkton who leads the national standings, was particularly hard hit. Hobson and Marzullo are his stable jockeys. Voss indicated that starters at Laurel could be further restricted to horses who have finished first, second, third or fourth in a race. "That's the kind of rule that's in effect at Saratoga," he said.
Later on the card, two course records were broken on the flat on the turf course. Take Heed shaved 1 1/5 seconds off the mark for 1 3/16ths miles and, in the feature, Putthepowdertoit clipped two-fifths of a second off the 5 1/2 -furlong mark.
Despite yesterday's debacle, Laurel operator Joe De Francis said, "You can't push the panic button and say you're going to suspend steeplechasing because of one bad race. These things happen. As long as the fans like it and want it, we'll keep it."
Yesterday's first jump race attracted $28,507 in bets; $31,668 was wagered on the second. In each case, the handle was about half of the amount bet on a flat race. Two steeplechases, with a special 2 p.m. post time, are carded for today.
Stewards strike out
Rarely have the stewards at Maryland's flat tracks had a worse day than Wednesday, when the Maryland Racing Commission reversed three of the judges' recent rulings in appeals proceedings.
Not only did the commissioners overturn the stewards' disqualification of the filly Norstep in the March 11 Politely Stakes, they ruled in favor of Phyllis Fitzgibbons' Cloud's Forty Four after the stewards cited a wrong rule in disqualifying him from Pimlico's eighth race April 21.
The commissioners also overturned the disqualification of Steve Ferguson's Boomer's Bunyon in the fourth race at Laurel on Feb. 15, saying the stewards did not have sufficient cause to penalize the horse.