Under Microscope of Heightened Vigilance, Racing at Laurel a 'Go'

Laurel Park | MJC Photo

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Amid glowing opinions from stakeholders that the work-in-progress new dirt surface at Laurel Park has improved dramatically after eight equine fatalities from main-track fractures there this autumn, racing has been greenlighted to proceed as scheduled Dec. 16 for the first time in 18 days.

The Maryland Racing Commission (MRC) determined during a Tuesday tele-meeting that it didn't technically need to take a vote for racing to resume, but the board made sure to solicit ample feedback from jockeys, trainers, track executives, track surface consultants and veterinarians before issuing a verbal approval for Thursday's already-drawn card.

The meeting's most insightful commentary was provided by commissioner R. Thomas Bowman, a veterinarian who chairs the MRC's Equine Health, Safety and Welfare Advisory Committee. He spoke bluntly and candidly while outlining a plan for how future horse deaths might be prevented.

“Transparency and trust and cooperation have not always been part of the culture on the racetrack,” Bowman said, noting how the financial interests of horse people and track managements have too often trumped health considerations.

“The safety of the horses and the riders has quite often been put in the background,” Bowman said. “That's not an accusation, and it's not an indication of what exists now. That's just a fact of a way that we have evolved over a long, long time…

“There doesn't seem to be any indication, in my mind, that there is any party or parties that are not willing to step up and try to straighten this situation out,” Bowman said. “And it's a daunting task.

“One of the things that bothered me the most, and still bothers me, is the fact that this last collection of tragedies should have been forewarned when the horsemen started screaming that the racetrack was too fast,” Bowman said. “I'm not pointing a finger at anybody. I'm saying that the process with which this information filters upstream to the commission…was not effective, was not working. And it irritates me to death that we have to go through this.”

Bowman said that since the Nov. 29 shutdown of the track, he has worked with backstretch stakeholders and executives from The Stronach Group (which owns the Maryland Jockey Club [MJC], which in turn owns Laurel) to come up with system that will allow everyone involved to have safety-related input that will be monitored on a regular basis.

“If the trainers had felt that they could go to someone and their complaints were not just dismissed, possibly we could have circumvented a lot of this,” Bowman said.

Bowman said the idea of having a weekly required meeting to accomplish that goal was first proposed, but that he wasn't in favor of having stakeholders air concerns that way because public meetings aren't always conducive to people speaking candidly.

Instead, he said he's working on a plan in which Heidi Thomas, the MJC's senior veterinarian, will actively make the rounds on the backstretch to routinely speak with horse people, other veterinarians, riders, and track executives before fashioning what they say into concise feedback that will be directly related to the MRC and its own team of veterinarians.

“That will give some sort of public voice to people that are concerned,” Bowman said. “That will help out. But even more important is trying to get a process where we don't have to wait until we see the broken legs before we start recognizing problems, and that's some sort of an early warning system…

“I don't think this is the end of this process. I think it's the beginning of the process. But at least it will give horsemen a chance to express themselves and know it's going to go somewhere,” Bowman said.

MRC chairman Michael Algeo agreed: “This is a new beginning, as Tom said. Maybe a watershed moment. We're going to stay on this on a regular basis, because we can't allow [equine injuries or deaths] to continue to happen.”

The cluster of fatalities is the latest safety blow at Laurel. After years of freeze/thaw and drainage troubles, the main track was in such bad shape last spring that Laurel ceased racing Apr. 11 to begin an emergency overhaul, which involved a multi-million-dollar rebuild from the base up.

When racing resumed at Laurel Sept. 9, the main track had no apparent safety issues. But the onset of cold weather revealed problems with seams in the base of the homestretch, then the cushion atop that layer needed substantial reworking to give it more body and depth.

“There's been a huge, huge learning curve with this material and this track from when it was put in in July to right now,” said Chris Bosley, the MJC's track superintendent. “We know that we still have a long way to go. But we're working with every industry expert we possibly can [and] we're not going to stop until this thing is perfect. And once it is perfect, we're going to do everything that we can to keep it the same, to keep it perfect.”

Two among that team of consultants have firsthand knowledge of Laurel: John Passero, who used to be the MJC's track superintendent several decades ago, and Glen Kozak, who served in that same capacity in the mid-2000s before being hired by the New York Racing Association and eventually promoted to the senior vice president of operations and capital projects.

“This is a changed racetrack,” Passero said. “They're adding a more medium-coarse sand to give it some body. We're going back to a system that I used to use–plenty of depth. It seems to be very kind to horses. I look at it, and I look at the hoofprints, and I rode the tractors. I think we're definitely heading in the right direction [and] I think it can only get better.”

Added Kozak, “It's certainly trending in the right direction…. The products that are being used on the track are on-site, so this is something that can continue in getting this thing prepared for winter racing. It certainly is a different track than it was a week ago when I saw it, and it all seems like it's heading in the right direction.”

Tim Keefe, the president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said, “I think we're definitely in a much better place than we were.”

Jockey Xavier Perez said, “The difference on the surface of the track is 20 times better than what it was.”

Fellow rider Victor Carrasco concurred.

“I feel like the track is in great shape,” he said.

But Carrasco added that moving forward, it's the responsibility of jockeys and exercise riders to let trainers know if a horse has soundness issues or doesn't feel right instead of saying nothing and letting another person get on a potentially dangerous mount.

“It's not only the track,” Carrasco underscored.

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