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Renewed concerns emerge over racing surface at Laurel Park after winter weather prompts cancellations

After another week of canceled racing and training days, the Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, The Stronach Group, are confronting renewed concerns about the viability of the dirt surface at Laurel Park.

Track officials met with frustrated horsemen over Zoom on Tuesday afternoon, trying to explain why the surface has responded poorly to winter weather in the wake of a $3.5 million resurfacing project last summer and emergency upgrades in the first half of December.

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They pumped more than 1,000 tons of coarse sand into the track surface Monday and Tuesday, hoping to reduce the percentage of clay and silt and make the dirt mixture more resistant to icing. Horses galloped Tuesday morning and full training could resume Thursday, with Sunday the target date for a return to racing.

“We really accelerated [maintenance],” said Mike Rogers, president of the racing division for The Stronach Group, which owns and operates Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. “We made great progress yesterday.”

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On Monday, The Stronach Group brought in two consultants, Glen Kozak of the New York Racing Association and Jamie Richardson of Churchill Downs, to examine the surface and offer recommendations.

Kozak gave an optimistic report on the Zoom call: “It’s just getting this product into the sand, into the cushion, so that the track can be maintained. But it’s moving along very, very well.”

Horses walk to the paddock at Laurel Park on Nov. 20, 2021. Officials pumped more than 1,000 tons of coarse sand into the track surface Monday and Tuesday, hoping to reduce the percentage of clay and silt and make the dirt mixture more resistant to icing.
Horses walk to the paddock at Laurel Park on Nov. 20, 2021. Officials pumped more than 1,000 tons of coarse sand into the track surface Monday and Tuesday, hoping to reduce the percentage of clay and silt and make the dirt mixture more resistant to icing. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

This was a glimmer of promising news for trainers, owners and jockeys, who are fed up with losing racing days because of the ongoing maintenance troubles.

“We’re desperate to run these horses,” said Tim Keefe, a longtime trainer and president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. He suggested adding race cards on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to make up for the lost dates, a move Rogers said he was open to.

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“The horsemen have been very patient with all of this process,” said trainer Ferris Allen, an MTHA board member. “But a lot of people are hurting economically out here because of the way this has been handled.”

Owner and breeder Lou Ulman, a former chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, wondered if problems with the surface will recur, as they have multiple times over the past year. “How confident are we that this track will hold in the future?” he asked.

Track officials have told horsemen they might consider shifting racing and training to Pimlico as they did during the initial resurfacing last year, but Rogers seemed optimistic that maintenance operations this week would make such a move unnecessary.

“Once we’re there, we’re confident the track will be able to maintain,” he said.

A series of fatal breakdowns prompted track officials to halt racing and training at Laurel Park in late November. Based on guidance from several expert consultants, including Kozak, they added more than 1,200 tons of coarse sand to cushion and winterize the racing surface. Laurel Park reopened for racing Dec. 16, with trainers and jockeys praising the track improvements and expressing optimism about the chilly months ahead.

No significant problems arose at first, but then temperatures plummeted last week, accompanied by two rounds of snow. Trainers and track officials quickly noticed icy clumps in the dirt surface, suggesting it was not responding well to harsher conditions.

The Maryland Jockey Club acknowledged as much when it halted training last week and called off another weekend racing card. The Jockey Club subsequently canceled racing for Friday and Saturday of this week.

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