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Live horse racing at Laurel Park to resume Saturday with no spectators

Spectator-free thoroughbred racing will resume at Laurel Park on Saturday after the Maryland Racing Commission approved the parameters for a summer meet, slated to run through Aug. 22.

In a Thursday afternoon statement announcing the return of racing after 2 ½ months away because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Maryland Jockey Club said the meet “will be conducted under the industry’s most stringent health and safety protocols and Laurel Park will remain closed to the general public pending changes to the State’s further executive orders or guidance.”

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“It’s a relief,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “I’m happy for the horsemen on the backstretch and for the industry that we’re going to start to re-open.”

Maryland racing has been on hold since mid-March, when the Jockey Club halted operations in observance of Gov. Larry Hogan’s pandemic-fueled restrictions on local businesses. The state’s horsemen had grown increasingly frustrated in recent weeks as racing resumed in neighboring West Virginia and at major tracks in Kentucky and California.

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Tim Keefe, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, released an open letter last week outlining the steps local trainers had taken to comply with Hogan’s requirements for re-opening. He also suggested funding for the Preakness Stakes might be imperiled without the resumption of live racing.

“We have made clear to the Administration, time and again, the significant and successful steps our entire community has implemented during these last two months, as 1,300 horses have trained at Laurel Park,” Keefe wrote. “We have also stressed the current limitations of our purse account if we cannot reopen soon. Without the ability to replenish itself, and generate additional revenue from live arcing, it may be unrealistic for the purse account to fund the Preakness and its expensive supporting race card that benefits out-of-state horsemen to the exclusion of a struggling Maryland racing community.”

Foreman said the state’s horsemen were near a “tipping point” of anxiety before Thursday’s announcement, which prompted a flood of upbeat reactions.

Racing will return with cards on Saturday, Sunday and Monday at Laurel Park. The Jockey Club, which requested 28 racing days in its proposal to the Racing Commission, will hold another Saturday-Monday card the following weekend before settling into a twice-a-week schedule. The cards will not feature stakes races for now as industry leaders aim to reward local horsemen and rebuild a purse account that’s been depleted by the loss of racing and casino revenues.

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“We’re hopefully going to have a good revenue stream, because it appears that those tracks that are conducting live racing right now are experiencing positive betting trends,” Foreman said. “We’re going to start a national advertising campaign as early as next week to appeal to those who have turned to horse racing as an alternative in the current market. So we’re going to manage as best we can through the summer … and I think being able to open this Saturday is going to be very positive as we look ahead to the fall.”

Foreman added that the racing industry, more than most businesses, is equipped to resume operations without presenting any increased danger to the public. “Our business is online,” he said. “We are not bringing the public into our facility.”

Beyond the summer slate at Laurel, it’s not clear how the Jockey Club might build its fall calendar around the postponed Preakness Stakes, scheduled for Oct. 3 at Pimlico Race Course. In recent years, the Jockey Club has held a short meet at Pimlico around the Preakness.

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