By T. D. Thornton
Concerns over the safety of the troubled main dirt track at Laurel Park have quieted since racing was halted there Apr. 21-28. Mike Rogers, the president of the racing division for 1/ST Racing, which owns both Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, told the Maryland Racing Commission (MRC) Tuesday that several “tweaks” to the maintenance routine represent the only significant changes to the surface since racing resumed Apr. 29.
The tone was noticeably less tense and in-person attendance was diminished during the MRC's regular monthly meeting at Laurel May 2. Those dynamics stood in contrast to when the commission met one week previously on Apr. 25 for an emergency session to address five recent main-track equine fatalities at Laurel, including two that occurred there Apr. 20.
Last week, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA) and the management team at 1/ST Racing announced an “access agreement” that allowed for the MTHA's preferred track maintenance consultant, John Passero, to be retained to perform testing. Passero used to be the MJC's superintendent several decades ago, and the horsemen had previously lobbied for his inclusion as a consultant during the winter of 2021-22, which was when the last significant spate of equine deaths occurred over the Laurel dirt.
On Tuesday, Rogers said track executives and the horsemen “definitely appear to be on the same page right now…. Clearly, both sides are feeling that the track is in [such] a safe place that horses are able to run on it. I think Mr. Passero's quote said, 'If I owned a horse, I'd have no issues racing it.'”
Rogers acknowledged the two sides initially had differences: “Our group took the position that we felt the track was safe,” he said. “I know the horsemen took a different position. So we allowed an access agreement with Mr. Passero to come to the track. So Mr. Passero came on the grounds, and he recommended a couple of tweaks–slowing the tractors down; I think he had them go the opposite way in one direction, which I think our gentlemen were actually doing already anyways.
“But I think he increased the number of times that they go in reverse around the course. So it was kind of little tweaks of the harrows. We were kind of using what's called drag harrows in the morning and position harrows in the afternoon. And Mr. Passero recommended that we stay with the drag harrows in the morning and afternoon. So a couple of little tweaks here and there, and our crew felt that his recommendations made sense and we adopted them.”
In response to a question from a commissioner, Rogers confirmed that the work was being conducted over the entirety of the track and was not confined to a single problem area. He also said that 1/ST Racing hasn't nixed a single one of Passero's ideas.
“As of now, none of [Passero's] recommendations were a cause for concern on our side,” Rogers said. “As of right now, we've adopted all of his recommendations [and] we recognize that he has a lot of experience.”
Unlike last week's meeting at which several horsemen's representatives spoke about the situation, none were called upon to speak by the MRC and none asked to speak during public commentary.
In response to another MRC question, Rogers said Passero's work would not extend to Pimlico for the upcoming GI Preakness S. meet there May 11-29.
“His access agreement runs [until] June 30, and the access agreement is for Laurel only,” Rogers said.
Laurel's main track was closed for five months in 2021 for an emergency rebuild from the base up. But eight horses died from fractures while racing or training over that new track between Oct. 3 and Nov. 28, 2021, leading to weeks-long halts in racing through early the winter of 2022.
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