By T. D. Thornton
Seven Laurel Park horses have died since Nov. 6, and eight total have perished this autumn after sustaining fractures while racing or training over the newly installed main dirt track there.
The most recent death occurred in Laurel's eighth race Nov. 28, and training has been curtailed in the three days since then. A portion of the surface has been dug up in mid-stretch to allow an influx of track maintenance consultants to try and discover if there is an underlying problem that needs to be addressed.
Laurel's next scheduled racing date is Friday, Dec. 3, but it could be in jeopardy, according to Alan Foreman, an attorney who represents the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
“We've looked at every potential factor, and what we're focusing in on right now is the racing surface at Laurel,” Foreman said. “I think everybody understands that's what we're looking at, because with this red-flag cluster of fatalities, most of them were happening at about the same spot on the racetrack,” which he described as being in the middle of the homestretch.
“If there is a short-term remedy, then we'll try to implement a short-term remedy. If it's a longer-term issue, we'll have to address all of those factors. The expectation is that we're going to be able to start training on the surface this weekend, and we can resume racing next week,” Foreman said.
But, Foreman was quick to add, “We should not allow these horses to race on this surface until we feel certain that it's a safe racetrack.”
At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Mike Rogers, the president of the racing division for The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns Laurel, told TDN via phone that he could not immediately comment on when racing would resume. He said a press release detailing that decision was in the process of being drafted by TSG executives.
No timed workouts have been allowed at Laurel since Sunday, although horses have been permitted to gallop around the cordoned-off section of the homestretch, Rogers said.
Rogers said that on Nov. 23, a “minor maintenance” issue was identified in the homestretch. “It was a minor settlement in the base that we dealt with. Our crew found it. We're dealing with it. So that was the reason that the 'dogs' were up. We pulled up the cushion, and did some maintenance to that little bit of settlement that took place….before the sixteenth pole,” he said.
“We're planning timed workouts for Saturday, Dec. 4,” Rogers said.
The cluster of fatalities is the latest safety blow at Maryland's premier racing and training venue. Laurel had ceased racing back on Apr. 11 to begin an emergency, multi-million-dollar overhaul of the main track, which got rebuilt from the base up over the course of four months in an effort to solve substantial deterioration brought on by years of near-daily usage and piecemeal repairs to fix myriad problems.
“Whenever you put a new surface down, that can create problems of its own, so you have to be careful when you come back,” Foreman said. He added that when the new main track at Laurel opened Sept. 9, “We started out fine with it.”
The Maryland Racing Commission (MRC) confirmed the names and dates of the horses who have perished by providing an equine fatalities report to TDN on Wednesday. Counting only deaths from fractures on the main track since the new surface was installed, Laurel's first catastrophic injury occurred Oct. 3, when a $10,000 maiden-claiming filly named Kyosha lost her action near the three-quarters pole in a seven-furlong sprint. The Equibase chart stated she was vanned off.
There were then no main-track fatalities until Nov. 6, when the 3-year-old filly Bella Thyme died either during or after a workout.
On Nov. 13, Bust'em Kurt, a 2-year-old colt, was racing in the first flight of a pack of horses in a MSW six-furlong sprint when he unseated his rider at the top of the stretch after suffering a fatal injury.
On Nov. 19, the fatally injured 3-year-old gelding Gale Winds was vanned off after being pulled up in the early stages of a six-furlong NW2L $10,000 claiming sprint.
On Nov. 25, the 5-year-old gelding Manicomio fell while on lead at the three-sixteenths pole. The Equibase chart stated he was euthanized on the track.
The MRC fatalities report lists a horse named Golden Sky as having died during or after a Nov. 27 workout (Equibase does not list any currently active horses of racing age under that name).
Two horses trained by prominent Maryland conditioner Dale Capuano also recently perished: One was the 2-year-old gelding American Playboy, who, according to Equibase, was “injured past the eighth pole and had to be vanned off” this past Sunday in a six-furlong allowance/optional claimer.
The other was the promising Moquist, a 3-year-old filly with a 4-for-4 record who was a half-sister to recent GI Breeders' Cup Sprint victor Aloha West (Hard Spun). According to the MRC, she died Nov. 21 during or after a workout.
Michael Hopkins, the MRC's executive director, told TDN that from his perspective, all stakeholders appear to be working together in an effort to solve whatever is causing the fatalities.
“The commission's concerned about it, number one,” Hopkins said. “Number two, TSG has brought their people in from California. [Noted track superintendent] Dennis Moore is here. The horsemen have hired John Passero, who used to be the track superintendent [in Maryland] as an independent party to give his opinion of what he sees one way or the other.
“Hopefully, they'll come to a conclusion of what is best to address any issues that the track may have,” Hopkins continued. “My understanding is that they're being collaborative [and] understanding each other's positions and points of view. [But] where that sits right now I just don't know. John has been here since Monday. Dennis came in Tuesday night, I think.”
One aspect that has been a factor in the stability and safety of previous versions of the Laurel main track could be coming into play right now: the most recent seven fatalities have all occurred since the onset of colder weather, which, when coupled with moisture, can cause unevenness to develop.
During a Nov. 10 teleconference, Laurel track superintendent Chris Bosley said that the clay content in the new dirt track “is higher than was anticipated, so we'll be adding straight silica sand, which is 100% pure and has smaller grains. It will help break up the material a little bit, help loosen up the track, and help dry it out quicker. Moisture stays underneath and the material is bonding, so we'll introduce silica sand to break it up and probably slow down the track a bit. Silica sand is aggressive–and expensive–so we're going to do the process really slow.”
Although both Hopkins and Foreman told TDN the onset of colder weather could be a contributing cause to the racetrack's problems, they both underscored that equine fatalities can be deeply multi-factorial in nature, which makes it difficult to pin down any one issue that needs to be corrected.
“They're looking at everything. They're looking at a very broad spectrum here to make sure everything is right. Just from what we see, something's not right. It doesn't feel right,” Hopkins said. “Are there problems with the horses? I don't know. We have not had the opportunity to gather the facts as far as medical histories, vet records, and those types of things off of those horses to sit down and evaluate them one by one.”
Added Foreman: “It's not the horsemen. It's not medication. It's not running bad horses. You look at everything, but you look for the common denominator. It appears to be the racing surface, and that's what we're focusing in on.”
If the fix ends up being more complicated than expected, the prospect of having to transfer racing over to Pimlico Race Course (TSG's other Maryland track some 30 miles north in Baltimore) would be a much more daunting endeavor during the winter than it was last spring, when Pimlico was getting ready for its GI Preakness S. meet but ended up hosting Maryland racing through August. At that time, all horses were moved out of Laurel and split between stabling areas at Pimlico and the Timonium fairgrounds. But at this point in the year, neither of those venues is winter-ready to host massive numbers of horses.
“The problem with Pimlico is there's no place for the horses to train, unless we allow training at Laurel,” Foreman said. “That's the problem with the consolidation of racing here–we don't have a backup if the dirt surface at Laurel is out of commission.”