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On the right track

The Baltimore Sun

Rick Dutrow's memories of Pimlico Race Course go back decades, when his father trained horses who raced there and Baltimore's most famous track had a reputation for being hard and fast. It was done in part to produce eye-popping results for the second jewel of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown - the Preakness.

After recently criticizing Pimlico's surface, Dutrow changed his opinion upon watching his prized thoroughbred, Big Brown, go through an early morning workout Thursday in preparation for the 133rd Preakness today. It wasn't what Dutrow saw, but rather what he heard.

Or didn't hear.

"The way I saw the track this morning, it had a nice little cushion to it," Dutrow said. "You couldn't hear the horses galloping past you. I was pleasantly surprised that it had a cushion. I was happy about that. I'm really praying for a nice, fast, safe track."

After what happened to Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro at the 2006 Preakness and to Eight Belles after finishing second to Big Brown in this year's Derby, Dutrow is certainly not alone. But those whose livelihoods revolve around Pimlico say it remains one of the safest tracks in the country.

As a result, there are no plans to turn Pimlico and Laurel Park into synthetic tracks, as the California Racing Commission mandated that its four major racing venues do this year. Other tracks, including Keeneland in Kentucky, Arlington Park in Illinois and Woodbine in Canada, also switched to synthetic surfaces.

"This is probably the safest dirt track we have in the United States," veteran jockey Mario Pino, whose career has been based in Maryland, said this week. "When I go other places, I can see how well they take care of the track here."

According to John Franzone, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, there have been only 1.4 breakdowns per 1,000 races over the past 10 years at Pimlico and Laurel. Those numbers have decreased in the four years since the dirt and turf tracks were overhauled at Laurel, Franzone said.

"From our statistics, we don't have a major problem," Franzone said. "Can the surfaces be improved? I guess anything can be improved. We don't see any evidence that the synthetic tracks are any better than what we have now. In fact, they could be worse."

Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that even after Barbaro's catastrophic injury at Pimlico two weeks after winning the 2006 Derby, "I didn't read anything that indicated it was track-surface related."

Glen Kozak, who replaced longtime track superintendent John Passero 3 1/2 years ago, said he will approach today's race with as much confidence as concern. Kozak knows everything has been done to ensure the safety of the horses entered but realizes the racing gods can be cruel.

"Anybody can get hurt. You see football players, baseball players, with the best of everything, just like these horses are," Kozak said. "They get treated with kid gloves. You put out the best product that you can. That's why consistency is everything."

Kozak, the vice president for facilities and surfaces at Pimlico and Laurel, said he and his staff won't do anything differently for the Preakness than for other races at Pimlico the past couple of weeks.

"Nothing gets done special to the racetrack for this big race. It's just a consistent maintenance program," said Kozak, who made sure the track was rolled and sealed after Thursday's races because of yesterday's rain.

Kozak said the track has a crown to it to allow the water to drain from the outside rail to the inside rail. But Kozak acknowledges that whatever work done is at the mercy of the sport's most influential handicapper - Mother Nature.

"We'll stay glued to The Weather Channel from here on in," Kozak said, standing in the paddock area early Thursday afternoon.

Those who have been coming to Pimlico for years say the surface is much different than it used to be. Back in the days when the Preakness was considered racing's middle child - overshadowed by the Derby and the Belmont Stakes - the cushion was often scaled down to give the event its own personality.

But it made the surface unfair, and potentially unsafe.

"It was very biased. It was rail and speed," legendary Maryland-based trainer King Leatherbury said this week. "If you had a speed horse and got on the rail, you won. I think it's now as uniform as it can be. You're going to have days when some people have a complaint, but I don't think anybody can complain about our surfaces."

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