Racing gets back on track

Laurel: Snow crews work around the clock to bring horses and jockeys back to the starting gate.

February 21, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

For the past week, the only action at Laurel Park was happening on the business end of a snowblower.

There were no spectators - just an overworked crew of maintenance workers stealing catnaps in their cars. The races were canceled, the fans housebound.

But yesterday, hardly anyone was talking about the snow.

Yesterday was all about HongKong Charley and Promenade Lane, Urban Dancer and Love Happy. It was about predicting which horse would pay out like an ATM, then watching the jockey's bright silk flash like a fluorescent bolt against a background of white snow.

Never mind the fact that many Baltimore-area residents still have trouble driving up their streets. Or that Maryland's governor has extended the state of emergency.

Yesterday was just another day at the races. The track was clear and pristine. The horses were raring to go. And the usual crowd of 4,000 people showed up, thrilled to be back after a week of inaction.

"Excitement, I love the excitement," said Herman Martin, 77, a retired electrician who slogged through snow to reach the track from his home near Hyattsville. "Viewing the crowd to see how they react, it soothes my nerves, helps me get all my problems off my mind. It does something to me, puts me in another world."

The horses, too, seemed glad to be back.

They strutted around the track, holding heads high. It was preferable to their behavior in recent days - whining, poking their heads out of the stall and generally acting like other Marylanders who have endured cabin fever in recent days.

"They were going stir crazy, just like everyone else," groom Rob Goode said. "Thoroughbreds are kinda high strung anyway. They need to get out."

Getting the horses out was no easy task. The maintenance staff had contractors with front-end loaders on standby Saturday night, and used them to clear paths around the stables and along the main roads in case of a fire.

But Laurel Park's workers clear the track themselves - slowly and delicately.

The track is 75 feet wide and 1 1/8 mile around. Using snowblowers, two maintenance workers blew half the snow to the infield side and half to the grandstand side. By 2 p.m. Tuesday, they had all the snow off the track. Then, using a spike-toothed machine, the workers loosened the dirt on the track to make sure the earth didn't freeze.

Part of the track had to be cleaned by hand. And clearing the racing chute, a sliver of track where horses start the shorter races, was especially tricky.

John Passero, senior vice president for facilities and courses for the Maryland Jockey Club, supervised the work. Since Saturday night, he has alternated between sleeping on his office couch and in the cab of his truck - the cab being the more comfortable of the two.

His electrician, Billy Jones Jr., slept in his office chair for three nights.

Wearing white sport socks, a racing T-shirt and battered black jeans, Passero continued to be command central for the operation yesterday, using one hand to hold his cell phone and give orders, the other to eat grapes.

"You don't even know what you do," Passero said of the snow-removal challenge. "You work, you nap, you work, you nap."

Passero, though, has endured bigger snowstorms. He grew up around the snowy tracks in Canada - his father was a jockey. And he has worked in the racing business for 43 years.

"The advantage I have is that I started in 1960. Everything that happens, I've done," he said.

Love Happy's trainer, Howard Wolfendale, pronounced the track "perfect" after the horse triumphed in the seventh race yesterday.

Asked if the wintry weather had brought his horse luck, Wolfendale looked puzzled.

"Luck?" he asked. "Absolutely. Why not?"

The horses, in their own way, reported few problems in the snow. It didn't slow them down, according to trainers and regulars.

Basking in the sun, alone on a bench, Glen Burnie High school history teacher Al Zimbro was enjoying an unexpected day off. Never mind that his horses didn't do so well; the tall, tanned Columbia resident was just glad to be outside.

Zimbro said he decided to come to the track after hearing the weather report yesterday morning. If there's no school today, Zimbro said, he may return in the afternoon.

"I'll be back ... ," he said. "If it's a fair day."

And with that, he excused himself to bet on the last race.

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