After a 46-day hiatus as horses raced at Timonium and Colonial Downs, Maryland's bread-and-butter thoroughbred track opened yesterday with an eye toward the future.
Laurel Park welcomed 4,525 patrons on a sunny fall afternoon, then promptly turned its attention to Saturday's Maryland Million, the state's second biggest day of racing. In a ceremony in the Ruffian Room, post positions were drawn for the 101 horses entered in the 11 races for the offspring of Maryland stallions.
That is the short-term future. The long-term future is the $60 million improvement mission on which the Maryland Jockey Club has embarked at its Laurel track and soon will at Pimlico.
Yesterday, as customers arrived at Laurel, parking attendants handed them a "Welcome to Laurel Park!" placard with a map of the reconfigured entrance lanes and parking lots. For the first time in the 10-year regime of Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, several parking areas were free.
Trees and bushes graced entrances. Paint and new carpet brightened some areas inside the track, while others were closed or under construction. Numerous simulcast theaters are planned. The first new one to open, on the first floor of the clubhouse, attracted lively business as bettors viewed races on banks of large TV screens.
Renovations will continue for five years, according to De Francis' plan. In that time, five Maryland Millions will take place, the 14th in two days.
Tents line the racetrack apron. Temporary sky suites rise on the turns. About 20,000 people attended the Maryland Million last year, and if the weather holds, that many should partake again.
"Everything points to our having another terrific day," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
In the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic, the day's richest race, track oddsmaker Clem Florio deliberated deeply before anointing Perfect to a Tee as the tepid 4-1 morning-line favorite. A 7-year-old gelding on a two-race win streak, Perfect to a Tee has earned $345,224 in 54 races.
Algar, winner of the Classic the past two years, will not compete because of an ankle injury. Barring late scratches, 11 horses will break from the gate at about 5: 21 p.m. in perhaps the most competitive Classic ever.
Countess Diana, the 1997 Eclipse-award-winning 2-year-old filly, will not make the trip from Kentucky even though her connections considered running her in the $100,000 Maryland Million Distaff Handicap. Her trainer, Mary Jo Lohmeier, said the 4-year-old daughter of Deerhound, a one-time Maryland stallion, will probably race instead at Keeneland.
Edgar Prado, who leads Maryland Million jockeys with 16 victories, eight more than runner-up Julie Krone, will not make the trip to Maryland either. However, Prado did ride yesterday at Laurel Park.
Returning to his home state for one day after his successful summer in New York, Prado rode no winners in six tries, including the $125,000 Stormy Blues Breeders' Cup, won by New Jersey-based Superduper Miss.
"It's always good to be home and see all my friends, all the people who supported me," Prado said. "I wish I could have won a couple of races though."
4th Md. Million Day
What: 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions
Where: Laurel Park When: Saturday, first race 12: 35 p.m. Doors open 11 a.m.
Purses: $1,025,000 million
Featured race: $200,000 Classic, 1 3/16 miles
Activities: Jack Russell terrier races, trick riding, jousting, equestrian jumping, carriage driving, caricature artists, face painting, tote-bag giveaway to first 4,000 paid customers, chances to win Toyota truck door prize to patrons arriving before fifth race (post time 2: 37 p.m.) TV: Ch. 45, 4 p.m.-6 p.m.