With the Triple Crown right around the corner, one of the three host states for American racing’s most coveted series of horse races is scrambling to get things right.
After five horses died at Laurel Park over the most recent two-week stretch of racing, including two horses dying in back-to-back races on April 20, the Maryland Jockey Club announced that racing had been canceled indefinitely.
Please be advised racing has been canceled until further notice. #MJC
— Maryland Jockey Club (@LaurelPark) April 21, 2023
That indefinite time frame soon became definite enough to include Saturday, April 22, and Sunday, April 23, as canceled race days.
It would soon include the following week of racing at Laurel, too.
The Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, 1/ST Racing, had hoped to get racing back in action at Laurel for Thursday, April 27, but a lack of entries stopped that from happening.
The same would prohibit the Friday, April 28, card from being run.
Owners, trainers, and jockeys — led by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association — didn’t want to run on what many have deemed to be an unsafe dirt racing surface.
The state of Maryland horse racing is officially in jeopardy.
With racing still canceled at Laurel Park, what’s next?
With so much debate about the safety (or lack thereof) on Laurel’s main track, the Maryland Racing Commission scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday morning on April 25 to try and get things back on track.
Then, just 30 minutes ahead of the meeting, the Maryland Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association were able to reach an agreement that will allow an outside consultant to inspect the dirt track at Laurel.
CEO of 1/ST Racing, Craig Fravel, announced the agreement at the special meeting, which he appeared at in person. He is typically based in California.
“We will certainly cooperate with the MTHA and certainly make sure that whatever recommendations are made will be considered,” Fravel said, according to Daily Racing Form.
The disagreement — then planned special meeting — and subsequent agreement for the outside consultant to inspect the racetrack at Laurel came after a stalemate among the two racing organizations trying to find common ground for who should be inspecting and evaluating the racetrack.
To the pleasure of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the inspection will be done by an independent, third-party representative — and one with plenty of experience with racetrack surfaces.
Veteran track surfaces manager and superintendent John Passero, who served as a senior vice president for racing surfaces in the past, will be examining the dirt track surface and condition then make recommendations for how to improve it for safety, if needed.
Long road ahead for safety, horse racing in Maryland
Laurel has already endured 13 horse deaths this year. In 2022, there were eight for the entire year — that, too, was confronted with pushback and controversy.
Now, it’s clear action needs to be taken to improve the track — or at least verify its safety — before racing can continue.
“Our number one priority is, as leaders in this industry, safety — safety of everybody involved, and most particular, our equine athletes and jockeys,” Maryland Horsemen’s Association President Timothy Keefe said.
While there is no definitive date for when racing will resume just yet, Passero’s examination of the track is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, April 26.
Passero is expected to walk and ride a tractor over the track as well as analyze the soil for a better understanding of its condition and composition. He will also use historical data from the track in addition to his own measurements for clay, silt, and other material measurements. He will also look to examine the cushion of the track after a training session.
What do Laurel Park cancellations mean for the Preakness and Triple Crown?
Luckily, these glaring and painstaking issues do not appear to be present or anticipated at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
While the Maryland Jockey Club denied the initial request by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association to move Laurel’s scheduled race days 30 miles away to Baltimore, Maryland racing leadership is “not taking anything off the table,” according to Fravel.
The second jewel of the Triple Crown, The Preakness Stakes, is set for May 20 at Pimlico — a pivotal part of the 3-year-old racing calendar — so track conditions are expected to be exemplary for that day and at the track in general.
“We cannot afford to get this wrong, we have to get it right,” said Michael Algeo, the Maryland Racing Commission Chairman, during Tuesday’s special meeting.
Pimlico is scheduled to kick off its spring meet on May 11.