By Bill Finley
A few hours after the Maryland Jockey Club (MJC), which operates Laurel Park, put out a statement in which it said it had concluded “that there were no issues with the track and that it is safe to race and train,” the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA) and the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association sent a joint email to Maryland Racing Commission Chairman Michael Algeo calling into question the safety of the track and calling the current situation a “catastrophic emergency.”
There have been off-and-on concerns about the main track at Laurel going back to 2021, but the situation boiled over last Thursday when two horses, Golden Pegasus (Golden Lad) and Bigmancam (Can the Man), broke down during that day's card and had to be euthanized.
The Friday and Saturday cards were scrapped after the MJC announced that racing had been postponed, at least through the weekend. The MJC had hoped to re-open this Thursday, but did not receive enough entries to hold a card as horsemen, apparently wary of racing over the track, withheld entries.
On Sunday, the Laurel racing office was open in an attempt to put together a card for Friday. Some races filled, but not enough for a full card, so entries remained open and the racing office will be back at work Monday in order to put together a full program.
The Maryland Racing Commission has scheduled an emergency meeting to be held Tuesday at 11 a.m at Laurel, which could answer the many questions surrounding the track's problems and when racing will resume at Laurel.
According to the horsemen, there have been five fatalities this month alone. They cited the case of Witty Banter (Cross Traffic), who broke down while galloping during morning training, plus two others they said suffered fatal injuries Apr. 8 during morning training. According to the MTHA, the Apr. 8 card was canceled because the “jockeys refused to ride that afternoon because of obvious inconsistencies of the surface after inclement weather.”
Convinced that there is something wrong with the track that needs to be repaired, the horsemen wrote that the condition of the dirt track “is a serious threat to the life and safety of both riders and horses and must be immediately addressed.” The statement added that “…many owners have taken their horses off the track or sent them to other racetracks and training facilities, which is eroding the great product Maryland is able to offer.”
The horsemen have asked the racing commission to hire former Laurel and Pimlico track superintendent John Passero to evaluate the dirt course at Laurel and to come up with recommendations regarding how it can be fixed. Instead, Laurel management has brought in Santa Anita track superintendent Dennis Moore to evaluate the track and said he has put the racing surface through a series of comprehensive tests.
“Based on these tests and their professional knowledge, our track experts have advised that there are no issues with the track and that it is safe to race and train,” read the MJC's statement.
The letter from the horsemen and breeders also accused track management of blaming horsemen for the problem.
“Regrettably, rather than working with all parties cooperatively to identify the problem, 1/ST Racing (which operates the Maryland Jockey Club) has resorted to its old play book to insist there is nothing wrong with the track surface and that the problem lies solely with horses and horsemen,” read the statement.
In addition, the MTHA has asked that racing be moved to Pimlico starting Thursday and wants horses shipped to Pimlico for training until the surface at Laurel Park “has been evaluated and deemed safe.” The current Laurel meet is scheduled to end May 7. Racing is set to begin at Pimlico May 11.