Finally, Laurel is off and running


When workers started rebuilding the racing surfaces at Laurel Park in June, nobody foresaw the reopening taking place on a Wednesday in late January.

But that's what happened yesterday because construction problems delayed completion for four months and last weekend's snowstorm postponed opening day. The official "grand reopening" was rescheduled for Saturday, but eight races yesterday ushered in racing on Laurel Park's new dirt track.

"We all had to wait, but it was worth the wait," said jockey Steve Hamilton, who won the first race with Conduct, a 9-1 long shot. "The track's real good. The horses are bouncing right along. You can hardly hear them hit the ground."

Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, stood by the rail near the finish line for the historic opening race.

"I haven't seen this many people on the rail since the last Maryland Million here," Wright said.

A crowd of 5,036 turned out for the "soft" reopening of Maryland's bread-and-butter track. Maryland Jockey Club officials plan from now on to race at Pimlico for less than two months in the spring in a stakes-rich meet centered around the Preakness.

For Laurel Park's reopening, they unveiled numerous track upgrades, the most significant being the 95-foot-wide dirt track rebuilt for about $20 million. It was widened 20 feet and elevated for better drainage. Its companion track, the turf course, won't be finished until at least late summer.

Wright and many of his colleagues in the MTHA criticized the oft-delayed project, and last fall, Richard Hoffberger, president of the group, called it a "Class A disaster." But yesterday, MTHA leaders and the horsemen they represent praised the result.

"To date, we've had no complaints," Wright said. "All the reviews have been very positive."

Added Hoffberger: "These crews have done a great job of pulling it together. I give them credit for pulling it together at the 11th hour."

Jim Gagliano, MJC executive vice president of Maryland racing operations, breathed a sigh of relief even as he hustled from place to place addressing minor opening-day problems.

"It's great to be back," Gagliano said. "A lot of hard work went into this. We're grateful to everybody for their patience."

Willie Sydnor, 53, a bus driver from Montgomery County, attended the opening to get a look at the new track -- and to try to collect on a long shot. He failed at the latter, he said, but he liked what he saw on the track, especially from the vantage point of the elevated track apron.

"I liked the way they built this up above the track, and I can look down on all the action," Sydnor said. "I like it a whole lot better like this."

For reasons that apparently had nothing to do with the new track, horses in three different races unseated their jockeys at the break.

Two of the horses broke abruptly to the right, and one stumbled a couple of strides out of the gate. None of the jockeys or horses were injured.

In the inaugural race, 3-year-old filly Lady Lankford broke from post 1 and immediately dumped her jockey, Mario Pino, the winningest rider in Maryland racing history.

Pino, who later rode two winners, took it in stride, saying he could personally attest to the "cushion" of the new track.

"First race, the one hole, we break out of there ... and I come off," Pino said, smiling. "That's life."

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