Yes, there are still horses in horse racing. It's not all business and political mumbo jumbo -- although sometimes it seems that way.
The Virginia Derby was last weekend. The Delaware Handicap is today. And racing returns Thursday to Laurel Park.
The $600,000 Delaware Handicap for fillies and mares culminates the two-day Del 'Cap Festival of Racing at Delaware Park, where many Marylanders have turned their attention this summer. H. Graham Motion and Ramon Dominguez certainly have.
The Maryland trainer and jockey, respectively, have been winning 27 percent of their races at Delaware, and Dominguez is running away with the jockeys title. He rides first call for Motion, who entered horses in six of the seven Festival stakes.
"It's been a great meet," Motion says. "I've really tried to concentrate on running my horses here, for obvious reasons."
The main "obvious" reason is money. Delaware Park's purses continue to rise, fueled by the track's ever-popular slot machines. A less obvious reason is the condition of Delaware Park's backstretch, which Motion says is a well-kept secret.
"Let's face it: The backside at Laurel leaves a lot to be desired," Motion says. "The backside here is beautiful. That's nice for people and nice for the horses."
Motion will complete his move out of Maryland tracks this week when he transports his last six horses at Laurel to Saratoga. He has 30 horses at Delaware and 15 at Fair Hill. This winter he plans on stabling them all at Fair Hill and vanning down for races at Laurel.
Motion and Dominguez team up this afternoon with Your Out in the Delaware Handicap. The 4-year-old daughter of Allen's Prospect has not run in a graded stakes, whereas six of her competitors have won graded stakes. Pompeii and Critical Eye have won Grade I's. Starrer, the 5-2 favorite, shipped across country from Hollywood Park.
"I wouldn't ship Your Out to California to run against these kind of horses," Motion says. "But she really seems to like this racetrack. It's deeper and cuppier than most. It's hard to ship in and run well over it."
The Delaware Handicap will be televised live between 5 and 6 p.m. on "Road to the World Thoroughbred Championships" on ESPN2. The $250,000 Kent Breeders' Cup at Delaware Park will also be shown live. Two races from yesterday for 3-year-old fillies will be shown on tape: the Delaware Oaks and, from Belmont Park, the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks.
EPO banned in Maryland
The Maryland Racing Commission addressed two issues last week that got lost in the splashy announcement of Magna Entertainment Corp.'s intended purchase of a majority stake in Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie training center.
The commission banned erythropoietin, known as EPO, from Maryland racetracks. Called blood doping, EPO enhances the production of red-blood cells, thereby increasing stamina.
Thomas F. Lomangino Jr., director of the state lab, said that he's heard rumors of EPO being used on horses in Maryland. John Franzone, a member of the racing commission, said that certain instances of illegal drug use by trainers in Maryland was "mind-boggling. It almost looks like the East German [Olympic] team back in the '70s."
In addition, the commission heard Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, explain that the cause of the cracking window panes at Laurel Park was deteriorated gaskets and bolts. The panes will be replaced one by one over a four-month period, Raffetto said.
Bowman seeks unity
Tom Bowman, recently elected president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, has been meeting with all segments of the industry trying to find common ground and unity.
"I'm not going to rest on past history," Bowman says. "What we are doing right now isn't working. We're an industry in desperate need of change."
He says that Magna might bring about that change.
"I sort of have high hopes with trepidation," Bowman says. "At this point the ball's in their court."
Around the tracks
From humble beginnings by a few kind-hearted souls on the backstretch, the Betsy Wells Cancer Support Fund has swelled to $45,000. The Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund has taken over the account and will dispense money to workers in the thoroughbred industry with cancer.
Wells, a longtime horsewoman undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, is doing "really, really well," says friend Anita Motion, wife of Graham Motion, the trainer. Wells has received a portion of the money raised, primarily at a spring fund-raiser at the Mount Washington Tavern in Baltimore.
Xtra Heat returned to Laurel from her second-place finish in the Princess Rooney Handicap last weekend at Calder in good shape and will run Aug. 2 in the Grade III $100,000 Honorable Miss Handicap at Saratoga -- if the weights are right, says John Salzman, her trainer and part owner.
With the retirement of Caller One, who recently fractured a sesamoid in his right foreleg, Xtra Heat, despite her loss, moved into first place in the World Thoroughbred Rankings of horses from around the world pointing to the Breeders' Cup Sprint on Oct. 26 at Arlington Park.
The annual PAC fund-raiser by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and Maryland Horse Breeders Association will take place July 29 at the Timonium fairgrounds. Tickets for "Summertime Shindig," featuring food, drink and a silent auction, are $50 in advance.