When officials at Laurel/Pimlico race courses unveiled plans for a four-year, $4.15 million backstretch renovation program Friday, Maryland horsemen breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The physical condition of the Laurel and Pimlico backsides have become so bad that one trainer said they simply "needed to be bulldozed."
The backstretches won't be razed, but a major overhaul of the electrical, mechanical, plumbing, road and drainage systems will undertaken. The project will be done in 23 stages, or quadrants, so as not to overly inconvenience horsemen at both tracks.
Although the project is, in fact, something to which the tracks did not have to make such a commitment, further deterioration would have been a form of business suicide.
A lackluster racing program cannot be directly attributed to poor backstretch conditions. But when a trainer or owner decides to ship a string to Maryland and finds standing water or no electricity or potholes in and around his barn, he or she suddenly adopts a new attitude.
On some of his many forays into Maryland with stakes-class horses, trainer D. Wayne Lukas has off-handedly referred to the unsatisfactory conditions as a factor in not sending a string to Maryland. Although Maryland racing certainly doesn't live or die with what Lukas does, it makes you wonder how many trainers with reputable stables may have been dissuaded from coming here for similar reasons.
At a Friday news conference, Laurel/Pimlico president Joe De Francis referred to the myriad of factors that have contributed to a widespread horse shortage that, in turn, has been partly responsible for a general decline in racing in Maryland and elsewhere. Poor backstretch conditions, he acknowledged, may be a part of a negative trickle-down effect.
So, a positive step. Jim Mango, vice president at both tracks, said that in just six weeks, the first stage will be completed and a new image of Maryland racing will become increasingly visible. After years of decay, it will be a welcome one.
The winner's circle scene in the minutes after last Saturday's De Francis Dash at Laurel could not have provided a more bitter contrast.
While the victorious Housebuster and his connections had their photos taken, Dr. Patricia Brackett and others worked frantically on the racetrack, only about 30 feet away, trying to stabilize Bravely Bold's injury.
Because of quick acting by Brackett, Bruce Gill and Philip "Buffalo" Seiling, and because Bravely Bold's class allowed him to remain calm while a rigid cast was placed on his shattered right ankle, the horse was loaded onto a horse van within minutes and transported out of sight. He was then destroyed.
The whole thing could have turned into a horror show, but the workers' professionalism kept the tragic effects to a minimum.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Laurel meet has been the resurgence of Clarence "Jo Jo" Ladner, who was just one winner behind leader Mike Luzzi atop the jockeys' standings after Friday.
Ladner, a moderately successful apprentice in 1984-85, has been a mid-pack journeyman since. So his move into the riding elite is like someone such as Bill Ripken suddenly becoming one of the top home-run hitters in the American League.
A lesson in life may be the reason for Ladner's streak. Last winter, he returned to his native Louisiana to recuperate from arm surgery. Ladner, his wife, Angele, and their three children lived with his parents, and Ladner made $5 an hour painting houses. He now calls it a humbling experience, one that gave him the inspiration to become more dedicated to his career.
B6 "I'm just glad to be where I am now," Ladner said.
The eighth race in the American Championship Racing Series, the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar Race Course on Aug. 10, should present an interesting clash.
Best Pal, a 3-year-old, is expected to run against Farma Way, Festin and Marquetry. The gelding will be the first of his crop to try older horses in the series and, for that matter, in a high-visibility stakes event this year.
Best Pal, second in the 1991 Kentucky Derby, easily beat 3-year-olds in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park last out, his first victory in six starts this year.
Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sportswriter who won a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and who enjoys covering racing, has a race named for him at Hollywood Park. The Jim Murray Handicap was run for the second time June 29.
Asked whether he ever has had a horse named after him, Murray said: "No, and I rather hope it stays that way. The horses named after sportswriters don't do much better than sportswriters do."