Track officials at Laurel Park suspended thoroughbred workouts and called off three planned racing cards for this weekend after eight horses suffered fatal fractures in October and November while racing or training over the recently installed dirt surface at the facility.
“While racing is suspended, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and the Maryland Jockey Club are working with industry experts to analyze surface composition and maintenance procedures directed at the safest possible racing surface,” horsemen and track officials said in a joint news release Thursday afternoon.
The suspension of workouts, after a fatal injury in Sunday’s eighth race to 2-year-old gelding American Playboy, was another blow in a difficult year at Laurel Park. The Stronach Group, which owns and operates the track, halted racing in April to allow for an emergency, ground-up rebuild of the racing surface. The project lasted through most of the summer, cost an estimated $3.5 million and shifted racing to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
Now, the horsemen who use the Laurel Park surface are worried all over again.
“I’m not happy about it, obviously,” said veteran trainer Gary Capuano, who is based at the track. “There have been a lot of sleepless nights lately, worrying about the safety of the horses and the riders, because it all works together.”
Capuano is concerned about a lack of cushion in the dirt surface. He and other trainers noticed more horses suffering injuries during morning training even before the string of breakdowns.
“The racing surface is the most important part of racing,” he said. “The horses are running a lot faster than they’re usually capable of doing. When the track is hard and they hit that base too hard, that’s when you get the catastrophic breakdowns.
“They have to make it right. They have to make the surface safe.”
The fatalities also drew the attention of the Maryland Racing Commission, the appointed panel that regulates the state industry.
“It throws up a red flag,” said Mike Hopkins, the commission’s executive director. “Safety and welfare is the highest concern that we have, and the commission’s going to be wanting answers. They have a meeting on Tuesday, and I’ve already informed The Stronach Group: Be prepared to answer questions at that meeting.”
Alan Foreman, general counsel for the horsemen’s association, said his organization insisted on bringing in consultants, including former Pimlico and Laurel track superintendent John Passero, to examine the surface this week with Dennis Moore, the senior track superintendent of The Stronach Group.
“It appears that what’s happened is that the new surface that went down is a great summer track, but it‘s changed with the change in the weather,” Foreman said. “In addition, the maintenance may not be consistent with what you need to do as the weather has changed. So, we think we’ve identified the problem with the racing surface, and we’re working through how to fix it. ... This can happen with a new racing surface.”
Horsemen and track officials hope the cushion can be deepened in the short term to allow workouts and racing next week. But Foreman said they won’t rush at the expense of safety. “It’s going to get fixed or we’re not going to race,” he said.
Racing had resumed in early September at Laurel Park, with track officials and horsemen expressing optimism that the new surface would be safer and more reliable.
In response to an emailed question last month about the resurfacing project, Craig Fravel, CEO of racing operations for The Stronach Group, said: “We are very pleased with the final results; the feedback from horsemen and the wagering public has exceeded our expectation, but it’s important that we have an effective maintenance program and proactively stay ahead of any issues that may develop.”
The first sign of trouble arose Oct. 3 during the fourth race, when a 3-year-old filly named Kyosha had to be euthanized after pulling up near the three-quarter pole. Another 3-year-old filly, Bella Thyme, suffered a fatal fracture in training on Nov. 6. Six more horses suffered fractures in races or workouts over the ensuing 22 days.
The unusual spate of fatal injuries, first reported by Thoroughbred Daily News, prompted track officials to dig up a portion of the mid-stretch this week in search of an explanation.
Maryland has avoided outright catastrophes such as the spate of 30 deaths at Santa Anita Park that led in 2019 to calls for the abolition of racing in California. But the state has coped with clusters of racing and training deaths before, including at least a dozen in the first half of 2019. In 2013, Maryland saw 2.9 breakdowns per 1,000 starts, 53% above the national average, according to a database maintained by The Jockey Club, a 125-year-old organization devoted to maintaining and improving thoroughbred breeding and racing.
With track conditions, weather and medical issues factoring in, racing officials often struggle to pinpoint a cause. But past spikes in fatalities have led them to collaborate with horsemen on policy changes designed to increase safety, including stricter medication guidelines and increased emphasis on prerace veterinary checkups.
Stakeholders across the industry understand that no issue attracts negative attention more swiftly than racing and training deaths.
In this case, the track surface at Laurel Park is under scrutiny because it was already a source of tumult for much of this year. Several breakdowns in the winter and early spring prompted track officials to examine the dirt surface. They found more extensive problems than anyone foresaw.
Fravel explained by email: “When the top cushion was removed, and the base inspected, it was determined that we needed to replace the entire base as well as the subbase along the backside. During the subbase repairs along the backstretch, we found some pipes that needed to be replaced which was not anticipated at the start of the project. Like any construction project, sometimes one encounters the unexpected and that turned out to be the case here.”
The resurfacing upended training schedules at Laurel Park, which serves as the base for much of the state’s racing industry, and forced months of planned race cards to be shifted to Pimlico.
Both tracks will be redeveloped under a $375 million plan supervised by the Maryland Stadium Authority, with construction expected to begin in 2023.
Before the redevelopment plan received approval from the state legislature, The Stronach Group faced criticism from Baltimore-area elected leaders for using almost 90% of its state renovation subsidies to pay for improvements at Laurel Park, rather than Pimlico.
In the short term, racing officials said they will examine all possible factors to curtail the catastrophic injuries at Laurel Park.
“Certainly, the focus is on the track surface, but we’re going to look at other issues as well,” Hopkins said, noting that Maryland was headed for a lower-than-usual total of racing and training fatalities until the recent run of fractures.