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A reopened Laurel Park will be work in progress

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thoroughbred racing returns this week to Maryland after the five-week hiatus for the Colonial Downs season, which concludes tomorrow.

On Wednesday, Laurel Park reopens for live racing in the midst of major renovations inside and outside the track. Inside, the most striking change is the closing of the Sports Palace and the addition of numerous simulcast theaters in the clubhouse and grandstand.

We'll tell you more about that later this week. For now, suffice it to say that the Maryland Jockey Club has begun fulfilling its commitment to upgrade facilities and revitalize racing in the state.

"Pardon Our Dust" and "Wet Paint" signs will be bettors' ever-present companions for the foreseeable future.

The highlight of Laurel's fall meet, of course, is Maryland Million Day, for many the highlight of the entire year. It is Maryland's day at the races, and it is Saturday, post time 12: 35 p.m.

One hundred thirty-one horses sired by Maryland stallions were pre-entered for the 11 races with purses of more than a million dollars. In addition to a lucrative payday, the races offer year-long bragging rights to breeders and owners.

Edgar Prado, the runaway leader among jockeys in Maryland Million races, will miss the 14th renewal. He will be riding in Florida. But Prado will ride at Laurel on opening day. That is a dark day at Belmont Park, his current base.

Big day at Charles Town

Charles Town, the rejuvenated track in West Virginia, offers its biggest day today: West Virginia Breeders Classics XIII, six stakes featuring the $150,000 Breeders Classic.

Dickie Moore, general manager of the track, says Charles Town will add 500 slot machines to its current supply of 920 by the first of December. These will be coin-drop machines. About half of the 920, which pay in vouchers, are being converted to the more popular coin-drop models.

Moore says the voucher-producing machines attract wagers of about $160 a day, while the coin-drop versions are expected to lure from $265 to $300 a day.

Slots have financed Charles Town's resurgence from a moribund track offering $22,000 in daily purses to an upbeat casino-track offering $80,000 in purses.

Moore said the additional machines may result in daily purses next year of $100,000 to $125,000.

Charles Town is also building an outdoor paddock, replacing the indoor one with slots.

"There's ongoing construction all the time," Moore said. "Just a lot of plans, a lot of plans. It's been a great marriage, believe me."

December yearling sale

Now that the record-breaking yearling auction at Timonium is in the books, buyers can look forward to the featured horses in the December sale.

On the first day (Dec. 5) of Fasig-Tipton's two-day December Mixed Sale at Timonium, the 44 horses of Mea Culpa Stables will be sold. Their dispersal follows the breakup of Mea Culpa principals Phyllis and Bill Dixon.

The gems of Mea Culpa are the 9-year-old mare Dollar Poker (a full sister to Silver Charm) in foal to Skip Away; the 10-year-old mare Mz. Zill Bear (three-time Maryland Million winner) in foal to Dehere; the 17-year-old mare Silver Mink (Mz. Zill Bear's mother) in foal to Banker's Gold, and half interest in Secret Firm, the graded-stakes-winning sprinter in training with H. Graham Motion.

"There'll be national, if not global, interest in those mares," said Mason Grasty, executive vice president of Fasig-Tipton Midlantic.

De Francis likes TV move

Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, said he's "thrilled, absolutely thrilled" with the deal moving the Triple Crown races from ABC to NBC beginning in 2001.

Reported at $51.5 million for five years, the deal puts additional money into the pockets of De Francis' company, but also virtually guarantees additional viewers.

In the past on ABC, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes competed with NBA playoff games on NBC.

"Having the NBA be a lead-in as opposed to competition is huge, especially for the Preakness," De Francis said.

"The Preakness has been up against Game 6 or 7 of the second round of the playoffs. This is like a double bonus, getting rid of the competition and then using it to your advantage."

Ky. eases policy on drug

The Kentucky Racing Commission has eased restrictions on the drug clenbuterol, allowing horses to be treated 72 hours before a race with the controversial bronchodilator.

The new rules also allow horses to race with trace levels of the drug in their systems.

Once again, Kentucky has reinforced its reputation as the most permissive state in regulating -- or failing to regulate, depending upon your point of view -- equine medication.

In other states clenbuterol, which supposedly helps horses breathe by clearing mucus from their lungs, is not allowed to be present in a horse's system on race day.

In Maryland, the standard for administering the drug is seven days before a race.

Tom Lomangino, chemist for the Maryland Racing Commission, said he absolutely opposes any easing of restrictions in this state.

The limited research done so far has yet to prove that clenbuterol does not affect a horse's performance, he said.

MATCH future

Alan Foreman, the force behind MATCH (Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships), has already turned his attention to next year's series -- one week after the dramatic conclusion of the third MATCH season.

"I'm going to move forward under the assumption that there will be a series next year," he said. "We're prepared to move forward without Philadelphia if that's their choice."

Horsemen at Philadelphia Park have expressed dissatisfaction with Foreman and the MATCH series.

William M. Backer collected a $100,000 bonus after his Crab Grass won the championship as well as $25,000 for his mare's winning her division.

Owner of Smitten Farm in Virginia, Backer is a retired advertising executive. He created the ads, "It's Miller Time" and "I'd like to buy the world a Coke."

Bonuses in each division were distributed this way; $25,000 to the winning owner, $15,000 to the runner-up owner, $10,000 to the third-place owner, $15,000 to the winning trainer, $10,000 to the runner-up trainer and $5,000 to the third-place trainer.

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