Laurel Track Woes: Passero To Consult, Pimlico Move On Hold For Now

The Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (MTHA) and the management team at 1/ST Racing announced an agreement Tuesday morning that will allow for the MTHA’s preferred track maintenance consultant, John Passero, to be retained to perform testing that will hopefully lead to the latest round of fixes in a years-long series of safety woes that have plagued Laurel Park’s main dirt track.

The agreement, which was announced at an emergency meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission (MRC) Apr. 25, put off for the time being any action by the commission that would have mandated shifting racing to Pimlico Race Course some 30 miles north in Baltimore. 1/ST Racing owns both tracks under the corporate name Maryland Jockey Club (MJC).

Five horses have had to be euthanized this month at Laurel, including two who raced there Apr. 20. After last Thursday’s fatalities, 1/ST Racing initially announced that racing would be canceled indefinitely, then later tried to fill an Apr.27 card that was abandoned when horsemen withheld entries. Management has maintained that the track is safe, while the horsemen have disagreed, at one point calling the situation a “catastrophic emergency.”

Passero used to be the MJC’s track superintendent several decades ago, and the horsemen had 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.

At that time, a Maryland racing commissioner described Passero during a public meeting as having the confidence of “rank-and-file horsemen” while noting that Passero felt “frustrated” when his input as a consultant “was not being heeded” by track executives.

Both in the past and for the present problems, 1/ST Racing has relied upon its own consultants, most notably Dennis Moore, known for his longtime track superintendent work at Santa Anita Park, another track in 1/ST Racing’s corporate portfolio.

Craig Fravel, 1/ST Racing’s chief executive officer, told commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting that the negotiations with horsemen yielded “basically an access agreement for the MTHA to retain their consultant, John Passero, to come to the racetrack to perform whatever tests [and] evaluations [that] he feels are necessary to inform himself and his client [that could lead to] possible improvements to the racing surface.”

Fravel noted that Passero will be employed by the MTHA, and that the exact scope of his work is not defined by the agreement. Whatever data Passero uncovers will then be analyzed by track management, the horsemen, and the commission to determine the next steps.

Tim Keefe, the president of the MTHA, said he expected Passero to begin work as soon as Wednesday, Apr. 26.

Alan Foreman, an attorney who represents the MTHA, said, “We’ll collectively assess his findings. Any work that needs to be done, our hope is that it is a relatively quick fix, and that we will be back to racing as quickly as possible.”

Fravel was asked directly by a commissioner about the possibility of relocating the current Laurel meet to Pimlico, which is scheduled to race May 11-29 for its GI Preakness S. meet.

“We’re going to approach all of these questions in good faith,” Fravel said. “We’re not taking anything off the table, but we need to let this process unfold,” before having discussions about moving to Pimlico.

MRC chairman Michael Algeo made it clear that the commission’s top priority is safety.

“Racing will not resume here until this commission says it can resume,” Algeo said. “This is uncharted territory for the commission. This was not a hearing that we anticipated. It’s not a hearing that we wanted. But I have emphasized throughout my time as chairman and member of this commission that we needed cooperation, communication and compromise.

“We cannot afford to get this wrong. We have to get it right,” Algeo underscored.

Algeo noted that the MRC has a regularly scheduled monthly meeting for next Tuesday, May 2, at which it could take next steps, unless sooner action is warranted. Although his tone was generally terse, Algeo added that he was “optimistic” the testing and the fixes could proceed as swiftly as possible.

Pimlico hosted an extended meet through the summer of 2021 the last time Laurel’s track needed extensive repairs.

After years of freeze/thaw and drainage troubles, Laurel’s main track was in such bad shape in the spring of 2021 that Laurel ceased racing on it Apr. 11, 2021, to begin an emergency rebuild from the base up. The project was repeatedly delayed and had its scope expanded, and it ended up taking five months before racing could resume instead of the initially projected one month.

When racing resumed in September 2021, 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.

Eight horses died from fractures while racing or training over Laurel’s main 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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