By Bill Finley
The impasse between Maryland horsemen and the Stronach Group regarding the condition of the main track at Laurel could be nearing a resolution as the two sides are close to an agreement to let John Passero examine the racetrack.
Passero is the former track superintendent at Laurel and Pimlico and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (MTHA) has been insistent on letting him examine the track and have the final say regarding whether or not it was safe and, if not, what fixes were in order. The Stronach Group had brought in its own expert, Santa Anita track superintendent Dennis Moore, and were set to rely on his expertise.
Five horses have had to be euthanized this month at Laurel, including two who raced there last Thursday. After the Thursday breakdowns, Laurel management announced that racing would be canceled indefinitely. It is not clear yet when it will resume. A card scheduled for Thursday was scrapped due to a lack of entries.
Management has maintained that the track is safe, while the horsemen have taken an opposing view, at one point calling the situation a “catastrophic emergency.”
“We're trying to work through a few things,” said Tim Keefe, the president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. “But we've almost come to an agreement with the Stronach Group to let our track advisor, John Passero, come in and do some work. Nothing is finalized yet.”
But Keefe said that the mere fact that The Stronach Group is considering letting Passero study the track is a step in the right direction.
“Yes, I am encouraged,” Keefe said “I thought we had come to an agreement (Sunday) night regarding John and I was thrilled. This has been a roller coaster of emotions over the last 12 hours. I was thrilled and ecstatic last night. I was discouraged this morning. But I am more hopeful now. If that makes any sense.”
Keefe said that even if Passero is put in charge of the project, the final say regarding a resumption of racing will rest with the Maryland Racing Commission. But, he said, Passero's recommendations figure to carry a lot of weight.
“The final says will come with the racing commission but I expect them to point blank ask John 'Do you certify that this track is safe to run over?' It's either going to be a thumbs up or a thumbs down,” Keefe said. “He could say it's not quite ready yet and here is a list of things that need to be done and looked at. Or he could say, 'Yes, I have done my work and the track is ok.' He's very hopeful and thinks he can get things moving in the right direction in a short period of time.”
The Laurel racing office was open Monday and taking entries for a Friday card, but Keefe said racing will not resume until the Maryland Racing Commission agrees to a resumption of racing. The racing commission has scheduled an emergency meeting for Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Laurel to discuss the issue.
“When can we race again? It's up in the air,” Keefe said. “They're taking entries for Friday. But there will be no racing until the racing commission hears from John Passero or some other third party that the track is deemed safe. They will not let racing resume until they hear that.”
While Moore is among the most respected track superintendents in the business, Keefe said his members are more comfortable with Passero because he worked on the Maryland tracks for years.
“John Passero was in Maryland many years ago when he worked for the DeFrancis family,” he said. “A lot of the long-time horsemen here knew John from back then. They had a very good rapport with him and he had good results when he was here. He is old school. Certainly all the testing and all the laboratories and all the analysis they do, they are great tools. But in the case of John, there's nothing quite like getting out there and getting your hands dirty and walking on the racetrack and getting a real good feel for things. That kind of old-school mentality resonates with a lot of trainers here.”
HISA released the following statement Monday: “On April 20, HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus asked HISA Director of Equine Safety & Welfare Dr. Jennifer Durenberger to travel to Laurel Park to support Maryland horsemen and Laurel Park staff in assessing the circumstances surrounding a series of recent equine fatalities. Dr. Durenberger is now in the process of reviewing the information she gathered during her visit as well as available data regarding the veterinary condition of the horses. HISA Director of Racetrack Safety Ann McGovern is also collecting data and consulting with experts regarding the condition of the racetrack surface and whether it poses any risk to horses and riders. This review is ongoing, and HISA has not reached any conclusions regarding the potential causes of the recent fatalities. Once this thorough review has been completed, HISA will issue its findings and set forth any potential next steps. As always, HISA's primary goal is to optimize the safety of horses and riders, and that objective will be prioritized above all else in this review and in any subsequent actions”