With Passero in charge, it's always smooth running

On Horse Racing

January 30, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The telephone rang at 10: 30 p.m. Monday at John Passero's house in Carroll County.

Passero awoke to hear the ominous news: Huge snowstorm heading Maryland's way. He promptly called his crews at the racetracks and waited for the first flakes to fall.

Despite more than a foot of snow Tuesday and Wednesday at Laurel Park, the track conducted its full complement of nine races Wednesday and then maintained its regular schedule the rest of the week.

Although Passero carries the bulky title of Maryland Jockey Club senior vice president of racing surfaces and backstretch operations, he is known simply as track guru. Many consider him the best track superintendent in the nation.

"He's the best in the country, maybe in the world," said Mark Johnston, a Maryland jockey who rides regularly upon Passero's surfaces.

Since Jan. 17 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), Laurel Park has twice cut racing short after a couple of races and once canceled the entire card. None of the losses was because of Passero.

"The track is good," Johnston said. "The track is not the problem at all."

The problem is the cold. The jockeys have chosen not to ride because the numbing cold and extra clothing inhibit their ability to control horses, Johnston said. The hands, especially, lose effectiveness when chilled to the bone or covered by two pair of gloves.

"Your hands have so much to do with riding," Johnston said.

For Passero, the cold means "biting my fingernails, praying, things like that," he said. And snow "shatters your nerves, gives you ulcers and makes you feel real tired."

After receiving Monday's late-night call from the New Jersey weather service he subscribes to, Passero arrived at Laurel Park about 3 a.m. Tuesday. He didn't leave until after racing started Wednesday afternoon. And about 15 of his employees worked 35 hours straight clearing snow, harrowing the track and preparing the surface for racing.

"They're the real heroes of this whole thing," Passero said of his crew, which also maintains Pimlico and the Bowie Training Center. "Without them, I'd be lost."

Passero has worked 40 years on racetracks. He can engage you for hours in a discussion about their maintenance. But here, in short: "I always say the track talks to you. You look at it, and the track talks back. If you listen closely enough to its message, you'll know what to do."

Drug-test ruling appealed

Michael W. Dickinson, the Maryland-based trainer of two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Da Hoss, has appealed a Charles Town stewards' finding of a drug positive involving A Huevo. The Dickinson-trained 3-year-old gelding won the $150,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic in October at the Charles Town racetrack.

According to Rodney Peters, Charles Town's presiding steward, A Huevo tested positive for clenbuterol after winning the 1 1/8-mile Classic by nearly eight lengths in 1 minute, 50 seconds, breaking a 26-year-old track record. Illegal in West Virginia, clenbuterol is a bronchodilator that helps horses breathe.

After a hearing Jan. 12, the stewards disqualified A Huevo from first place and suspended Dickinson for 30 days. However, Dickinson promptly obtained a stay of that order in a West Virginia circuit court, pending an as-yet unscheduled hearing before the West Virginia Racing Commission.

Peters said that Dickinson called no witnesses at the hearing but denied any wrongdoing. The owner of Tapeta Farm in Cecil County, Dickinson was in England last week but on Friday issued this statement: "After a hearing before the Charles Town stewards where neither scientific witnesses nor DNA experts were heard in my defense, we have appealed the subsequent ruling. We will bring two expert witnesses and our DNA evidence before the West Virginia Racing Commission and show that A Huevo was not, in fact, treated with clenbuterol. We have every confidence of complete vindication."

Around the tracks

When nasal strips became legal here in mid-December, they were a curiosity: a strip across a horse's nose apparently enhancing breathing. They have become almost an afterthought.

Trainer Dale Capuano embraced them at first, using them on the first 25 or 30 horses he ran after the Maryland Racing Commission approved their use. Now Capuano uses them "once in a blue moon."

"I didn't notice any difference," he said. "I don't hear too many people even talking about them anymore. I don't see too many people using them, either."

Potomac Bend, the 4-year-old Maryland-bred filly unbeaten in four career starts, lost for the first time Monday at Gulfstream Park. She trailed the six-horse allowance field the entire six furlongs after downpours soaked the South Florida track.

Her trainer, Vinnie Blengs, and owner, Wayne Harrison, flew Johnston, her Maryland jockey, down for the ride. Johnston said she despised the mud.

"She didn't try at all," he said. Still, he said, "She's probably the best filly I've ever ridden."

Watch for bills in the General Assembly in coming weeks that would do the following:

Increase takeout on Pimlico and Laurel Park races by 1.5 percent (the Maryland Jockey Club wants this to help fund its track renovations);

Continue purse and bred-fund supplements to thoroughbred and harness horsemen (the industry wants this to help keep pace with purses in slots-rich Delaware);

Allow off-track betting parlors to be built closer than the current limit of 35 miles from a racetrack (William Rickman Jr., owner of Delaware Park, wants this so he can construct OTBs as part of his proposal to build a track in Allegany County). Rickman plans to apply for that track license in about a month.

The Maryland Racing Commission will not reschedule last week's meeting, which was canceled because of the snowstorm. It will meet next at its regularly scheduled time and place: 1 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Timonium fairgrounds.

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