By T. D. Thornton
Mounting problems that have forced the closure of the main dirt track at Laurel Park are now tentatively anticipated to be fixed by the start of June. But difficulties related to the sourcing and testing of materials for the base and cushion are keeping the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC) from setting an exact timetable for the return of racing and training at its primary venue.
On Thursday, the Maryland Racing Commission (MRC) met at Laurel for the board's first in-person monthly meeting since the onset of the pandemic. But Laurel's scheduled racing for Apr. 22 had already been moved 28 miles north on an emergency basis to the MJC's sister track, Pimlico Race Course, which was pressed into action two weeks prior to its scheduled opening because the situation at the torn-up Laurel track has escalated into a “million or multi-million dollar project” that has no simple fix.
That time frame and the cost estimate were provided to the commission by Steve Koch, the senior vice president of racing for The Stronach Group (TSG), which owns the MJC and both tracks.
Commission members expressed frustration at how the main track problems got so out of hand so quickly, and they grilled Koch and TSG for not having the foresight to identify and remedy the difficulties earlier.
“I think it's an accumulation of bad decisions over time and not putting the money in the track to get us from 'We have no issues' three weeks ago until today, where we're shutting the whole thing down and tearing it up,” said commissioner Konrad Wayson.
Koch acknowledged the work is extensive and disruptive to Maryland racing, and he articulated that TSG is in a spare-no-expense mode to make sure Laurel's track is deemed safe.
“We are looking at a total cushion replacement of the main track and some significant work on the base to restore its consistency,” Koch said. “It is not news that we've made base repairs to this track since the day is was installed. This problem that brought us here today is all about the cushion. Now that we have the base exposed, it would be perhaps a mistake to cover that back up” without shoring up the base.
“I hesitate to put a firm timeline on this for the moment,” Koch said, although he added that “I would not anticipate this running past the end of the current Pimlico meet.”
Pimlico is scheduled to race through May 31. Laurel's summer meet is supposed to start June 4.
Koch gave a recap of how the problems progressed, citing adverse winter weather as a starting point. As the maintenance crew began adding in more material with the coming of spring to keep the cushion four inches deep, “it reached a point a couple of weeks ago where were observing the track had lost a lot of its binding qualities, and we weren't able to maintain a sufficient hardening,” he said.
It then became difficult for the MJC to source the proper cushion materials, because management has “very tight specifications” in terms of composition. Some truckloads had to be sent back because the material didn't pass quality-control checks, Koch said.
That material shortage led to last week's TSG decision to halt racing and training at Laurel to avoid “unnecessary risks.” Horses stabled there have had to be shipped to Pimlico for timed workouts, Koch said.
The only fortuitous thing about the switch, Koch said, is that Pimlico was getting race-ready for its upcoming GI Preakness S. meet anyway.
Once Laurel's base was exposed, the TSG team evaluated it more closely and decided that because of its extensive history of piecemeal repairs, it seemed “less than ideal to be laying brand new, very expensive cushion” onto a substandard base, Koch said.
Koch explained there is now an active project in the backstretch chute that consists of three test strips of various base compositions, “and we are undertaking a scientific exercise” to figure out which one will work best.
“These are very scarce, very technically specified [base] materials, and in fact they're much more scarce than the cushion materials,” Koch said.
One of the biggest cost factors is the expense of trucking in the materials. Koch said product from the closest quarry to Laurel have not worked. Materials from a different regional quarry that the MJC has used in the past are no longer satisfactory. Now management is looking to source base material from as far away as New York, which figures to be very expensive.
“We will continue to subscribe to the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory top-to-bottom quality control program,” Koch said. “What we cannot do is control every aspect of winter racing and winter weather, and we cannot control the fact that sourcing stone from quarries all over the eastern half of the United States requires a significant shopping and laboratory exercise.”
Koch added that Charles Town Races, which is about 75 miles to the west, is also in the midst of an unexpected post-winter track resurfacing project that has caused a stoppage in racing.
Commissioner Michael Algeo told Koch he didn't agree with that comparison or putting the blame on a winter transition, which happens every year.
“I don't know what they're doing at Charles Town. I don't really care what they're doing at Charles Town. I'm interested in what happened at Laurel,” Algeo said. “I'm not a horseman, but I don't recall this being a particularly bad winter, either by cold, snow, rain. I mean it was winter. This is what we get in Maryland.”
Other commissioners suggested that the MJC's management is overextended right now: First the pandemic. Then this year the combination of the Laurel turf course needing restoration, the equineherpes virus quarantine, and the Laurel main track problems. All of this while getting ready for the Preakness at Pimlico.
“I would not agree that we are spread thin,” Koch replied, noting that TSG is treating Maryland as an all-hands-on-deck situation right now, requiring TSG executives to be flown in from other properties and the hiring of outside track maintenance and safety consultants.
Another commissioner questioned the wisdom of even putting in a new dirt track at all considering TSG has been floating the idea of putting in a synthetic surface at Laurel in the near future.
“The economics are not desirable,” Koch agreed. “But you can't shortcut and expect to have a safe and viable racetrack.”
Koch explained that once testing is complete and enough materials have been obtained, work will commence in two phases, starting with the inside 50 feet of the main track followed by the outer 50 feet.
“What that allows us to do is get the horses back on the inside of the track sooner,” Koch said. “And that's an excellent feedback loop because then the horses can tell us in real time [how the renovated part is] performing. That will be really critical to the project's success.”