Maryland horsemen remained uncertain Monday when racing at Laurel Park might resume as they awaited confirmation of a deal with the Maryland Jockey Club for an independent consultant to examine the racetrack’s dirt surface after five horses suffered fatal injuries in racing or training this month.
Tim Keefe, a longtime trainer and president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said he thought a deal was reached Sunday night that could allow racing to resume as soon as Friday. But complications arose Monday, when the association’s chosen consultant, John Passero, was supposed to begin his review at Laurel.
“Unfortunately, we’re still working through our agreement,” Keefe said Monday afternoon. “We had an agreement last night, but we haven’t reached an agreement right now. What they’ve sent so far is unacceptable. I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to blow things up.”
The uneasy negotiations Monday followed several days of explosive communications between horsemen and breeders, who say they worry Laurel is unsafe for horses and riders, and the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates the racetrack and says it’s safe for training and racing.
The concerns come amid horse racing’s most high-profile time of the year. The Triple Crown races begin in less than two weeks with the Kentucky Derby on May 6 in Louisville, followed by the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore on May 20.
Planned race cards at Laurel were canceled Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the behest of the Maryland Racing Commission, which regulates the state industry and is attempting to mediate between the two sides.
The Maryland Jockey Club subsequently canceled its planned card for Thursday after trainers and owners refused to enter enough horses to make up viable race fields.
Keefe and Kent Murray, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, warned of a “catastrophic emergency” facing the industry in a Saturday letter to the Maryland Racing Commission. They wrote that the condition of the dirt surface at Laurel, where most of the state’s year-round racing is run, “is a serious threat to the life and safety of both riders and horses and must immediately be addressed.”
The Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, 1/ST Racing, released a competing statement Saturday, saying an expert consultant had examined the dirt surface thoroughly and found “there are no issues with the track and that it is safe to race and train.”
A spokesman for the track owners said he had no further information Monday afternoon.
Horsemen and representatives of 1/ST Racing are scheduled to meet at an emergency session called by the Maryland Racing Commission for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Laurel.
Keefe had hoped that meeting would be no more than an occasion for the horsemen and track operators to detail the compromise they reached. He seemed less certain Monday, saying, “I just don’t know that that’s going to happen right now.”
At issue is the horsemen’s desire to have the dirt surface examined by Passero, a former track superintendent for Laurel and Pimlico. They say his review is necessary given the fatal injuries suffered in races Thursday by Golden Pegasus, a 4-year-old colt, and Bigmancan, a 6-year-old gelding. Another horse, 7-year-old mare Witty Banter, had to be euthanized after she broke a bone just above her hoof while galloping earlier in the week.
Passero served a similar consulting function in December 2021 when the Maryland Jockey Club canceled two weekends of racing in response to a series of catastrophic breakdowns that raised questions about the dirt surface at Laurel. Racing officials added more than 1,200 tons of coarse sand to the track’s cushion to address problems they blamed in part on the onset of winter weather.
Keefe said he’s not sure whether the possible problems with the surface are similar to those from 16 months ago.
“I would think it’s the composition of the material used as the cushion,” he said. “The depth and so and so forth. I’m assuming it’s something pretty much as simple as that.”
The Maryland Jockey Club said its surface expert, Dennis Moore, found no such issues over three days of testing last week.
“The results of these tests were all within industry norms,” the track operator said in its Saturday statement.
That statement also included a quote from Jennifer Durenberger, director of equine safety and welfare for the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, who noted that the racing fatality rate at Laurel this year is down compared with the same period in 2022.
But HISA released its own statement Monday, saying Durenberger is still reviewing information she gathered on a visit to Laurel and has not reached any conclusion on the cause of the recent fatal injuries.
“Once this thorough review has been completed, HISA will issue its findings and set forth any potential next steps,” the statement said.
Keefe and the horsemen’s association also have proposed temporarily moving racing to Pimlico, where no safety concerns have been reported.
For now, races are scheduled at Laurel for this weekend and the first weekend in May before racing moves to Pimlico for the Preakness Meet, which begins May 11.
The standoff over racing conditions at Laurel comes at a time of deep uncertainty for the state industry.
Redevelopment plans for Laurel and Pimlico are stalled, with the new Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority set to work on an amended vision for the dilapidated facilities under legislation recently passed by the Maryland General Assembly. Gov. Wes Moore signed that bill Monday morning, and the new authority, which will have broad powers to oversee day-to-day operations and develop racing facilities, will begin work in June.
The condition of Laurel, which was supposed to remain the state’s headquarters for daily racing and training, is one of the difficult issues at play as elected and industry leaders consider what to do next.
The Maryland Stadium Authority, which has managed the redevelopment, concluded last year that the track surface needs to be completely replaced.
Horsemen are looking for a more temporary fix now so they can resume basic operations, but they have made their anxieties clear.
“Maryland racing is truly at an inflection point,” Keefe and Murray wrote in their Saturday letter to the racing commission. “Our horses and riders’ lives are at risk and our industry’s future is on the line. The status quo at Laurel Park cannot continue.”