By T. D. Thornton
The extensive, expensive, and months-delayed installment of the new main track from the base up at Laurel Park is now close enough to completion that executives with The Stronach Group (TSG) have greenlighted Aug. 8 as the move-in date for horses and Aug. 10 as the first day of training.
Speaking via videoconference, Steve Koch, the senior vice president of racing for TSG, which owns both Laurel and Pimlico Race Course, said July 28 that the “whole oval really is an entirely new racetrack.”
Years of piecemeal repair jobs failed to provide the uniformity and safety standards that led to the closure of the surface for racing after the Apr. 11 program.
After switching the race meet over to Pimlico Apr. 22, TSG officials had initially targeted the start of June for the return of racing at Laurel.
At an Apr. 22 Maryland Racing Commission meeting, members expressed frustration at how Laurel's main track problems got so out of hand so quickly, grilling TSG executives for not having the foresight to identify and remedy the difficulties before the project spiraled into a multi-million dollar rehab.
But the initial excavation work revealed even more extensive problems, and then TSG ran into trouble with the sourcing of base and cushion materials.
Horses were mandated to be moved out of Laurel during the week of the GI Preakness S. in mid-May, and a revised July move-in date had to be pushed back to August as work progressed.
On Wednesday, Koch detailed the remaining work in stages, starting with the back straight from the six-furlong pole to the half-mile marker.
“All of the deep excavation is completed. All of the drainage tiles are laid in. All of that's been in-filled back. The base is laid back in there. And between finalizing the base and laying in that cushion, that will continue to happen through this weekend,” Koch said.
From the half-mile pole around the far turn to the second finish wire, Koch said the work “really is complete. The base is laid in all the way around there, and the tractors are actually working that material, getting a head start on having all of that cushion fully settled in. So that's really great news, that you can see a complete track all the way around the turn down the front stretch.”
From second finish wire around the clubhouse turn to the six-furlong pole, “that is where we still have a lot of work. That is where we are still re-laying that base rail to rail in fine grade, and it will receive its cushion going into next week,” Koch said.
“The very last thing that we will do is the chute. We anticipate that the chute will be done by the time that we are training horses out there on Aug. 10. But it will be last, and if any [remaining work] is held over, it ought to be in the chute,” Koch said.
The last four days of TSG's repair timeline before horses train over the surface are reserved for track maintenance crews “to be working the track in like a racetrack should be worked in before it's ready and safe for training and racing,” Koch said.
Mick Peterson, the director of the Racetrack Safety Program and a professor of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Kentucky, has been retained as a consultant by TSG for the project. He fielded a question about the markedly different coloring of the new cushion by explaining its reddish hue is by design.
“The color does matter, and that's one of the tests we do,” Peterson said. “A small amount of iron oxide can make a big difference in the way it performs. That will tend to be redder. Not surprisingly–it's rust.”
As for the grass course, Koch said, “The turf at Laurel is looking great.”
But Koch quickly added the caveat that “it is suffering from some heat stress,” which is a typical mid-summer problem in the region.
Koch said the deep-tine aeration strategy that has been implemented throughout the course since the spring thaw has now been paused during the summer heat, but he added that it will probably become a permanent part of Laurel's ongoing turf maintenance.
“I can say this with confidence: The turf course is now draining way, way better than it was a year ago and it will continue to make improvements,” Koch said.
Racing continues at Pimlico through Aug. 22, then moves to Timonium during the Maryland State Fair Aug. 27-Sept. 6. Opening day at Laurel is Sept. 9.