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As weather warms, horse racing industry hopes to bounce back from 'horrible winter'

After a difficult winter plagued by weather-induced cancellations at Laurel Park, Maryland racing officials are hoping track renovations will help spur interest in a spring schedule that will climax with the 140th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

"It's been a horrible, horrible winter," said Maryland Jockey Club vice president Sal Sinatra, who took over supervision of Laurel and Pimlico late last year. "It's unfortunate, because we were starting to build momentum with some of the renovations."

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Last week's snow wiped out an entire weekend of racing, bringing the seasonal cancellation total to 12 days, about twice as many as usual. Bad weather has wiped out nearly a third of Laurel's 43-day winter meeting. Sinatra said it's too early to tally the financial impact. He'll schedule more races per day and possibly add racing dates in August to mitigate the damage.

"But it hurts everybody," he said. "The track doesn't generate anything when we don't run. Living for the horsemen and everyone who works with them gets tightened for a month. It's tough."

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Maryland always presents scheduling difficulties because of the unpredictability of when winter weather might strike, said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "But this has been an extremely difficult weather pattern for the entire Eastern seaboard," he said.

Foreman said owners and trainers are frustrated they have nowhere to run their horses, "but everyone understands there's not a lot to be done about it."

Sinatra, who supervised tracks in the Philadelphia area for years, said this winter has been particularly bad — worse than many snowier years — because of persistent moisture and drastic swings between thawing and freezing. He said the track at Laurel Park has been so moist that snow clearing has been delayed by a day or more in several cases.

But as temperatures approach seasonal norms this week, he's optimistic that this weekend's four-day slate will kick off a long stretch of uninterrupted racing, with the scene shifting to Pimlico on April 2. Sinatra particularly hopes to put a new sheen on the day before Preakness, May 15. He pushed for new $50,000 bonuses to lure past winners of Triple Crown races to run in that day's $300,000 Pimlico Special. He'd like to attract last year's Preakness winner, California Chrome, though he deemed it a long shot.

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On the positive side, Sinatra noted that renovations have commenced at Laurel, with new carpet, gambling desks and flat-screen televisions sprucing up the setting for fans and construction underway on long-awaited barns for trainers. He said the first barn, with 150 stalls, could open next month.

Sinatra said fans will also see cosmetic improvements at Pimlico and pointed to the changes as signs that the Jockey Club's parent company, the Stronach Group, is finally committed to pumping money into the Maryland tracks.

"We've gotten quite a lot done in the last few months," he said. "I think, for a change, Maryland doesn't feel like the stepchild."

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