Laurel starts summer break today


March 28, 2004|By TOM KEYSER

Racing at Laurel Park ceases today and won't return until October. At least that's the plan of the Maryland Jockey Club and its parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp.

Pimlico Race Course opens its spring meet Wednesday and runs through June 6. About then, Laurel will be closed and its horses relocated so that workers can rebuild the dirt and turf tracks, says Lou Raffetto Jr., MJC chief operating officer.

Plans call for completely new surfaces. The 75-foot-wide dirt track will be expanded to 100 feet, and the 75-foot turf course will be widened to 150 feet, Raffetto says. The turf course will be designed to drain better than the current one, which forces races onto the dirt with frustrating regularity even after the slightest sprinkle.

To accommodate the wider tracks, the front corner of the clubhouse will be sliced off and the paddock moved, if possible, Raffetto says. The project will cost about $10 million.

The 880 horses at Laurel will be reassigned to Pimlico, the Bowie Training Center or Timonium. The MJC has arranged to use 450 stalls at the fairgrounds. With 950 stalls at Bowie and 700 at Pimlico, that will provide 2,100 horses for Maryland racing. Raffetto says he's concerned about filling races.

"This project is a long-term positive," he says. "But there are short-term negatives. It will have an impact on us this summer."

After Pimlico's meet closes in early June, racing will take place at Colonial Downs in Virginia from June 11 to July 26. Racing will return to Pimlico from July 28 to Aug. 27, shift to Timonium for 10 days and return to Pimlico from Sept. 8 to Oct. 3.

"We're on a very tight schedule," Raffetto says. "We're hopeful [of returning to Laurel in October]."

Meanwhile, the $45 million project to build a new barn area at Laurel has been "put on the back burner for the time being," Raffetto says. It could be resurrected quickly "if we get a slots bill that makes sense," he says.

Riches to rags

Two years ago, Lusty Latin ran in the Kentucky Derby. A year ago, he ran in a $1 million race in Dubai. Last night, he was entered at Charles Town.

It's been a long, strange trip for the gray California-bred who briefly stirred national interest with a closing third two years ago in the Santa Anita Derby. That set him up as a long-shot play in the Kentucky Derby. But at 22-1, Lusty Latin staggered home 15th, 26 lengths behind the winner, War Emblem.

Jeff Mullins trained Lusty Latin in Southern California. Last December, Michael Gill claimed the horse at Hollywood Park for $80,000. Mullins was delighted. He had tried to persuade Lusty Latin's owners to run him in a $20,000 claiming race. Mullins says that's what he thought the horse was worth.

"Michael Gill overpaid for that horse," says Mullins, from whom Gill claimed numerous horses. "He overpaid for a lot of the horses he claimed from me."

Trainer Nick Canani ran Lusty Latin once for Gill in a $48,000 race at Hollywood Park. Lusty Latin finished sixth. Then Gill shipped Lusty Latin cross-country, and his primary trainer, Mark Shuman, ran him in a $27,000 race at Laurel Park. He finished a fast-closing second, losing by a neck.

Last night, the 5-year-old Lusty Latin was entered in the eighth race at Charles Town, a seven-furlong allowance worth $32,600. Lusty Latin's first of his two victories (in 20 starts) came in California at Fairplex, a small track similar to Charles Town.

Rest for the weary

Shuman says the filly Forest Music, whose 2-year-old debut last fall at Laurel was sensational, has been given time off to grow and mature. She hasn't raced since a third in a minor stakes in December. She might be ready by June, Shuman says. He acknowledges that he and Gill, her owner, did wrong by rushing her into big races.

"We're very lucky we didn't injure her," Shuman says. "Hopefully, she'll overcome our mistakes."

Down the stretch

The Gill-owned White Mountain Boy will try one last time to run himself into the Kentucky Derby. After suffering his first defeat in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes last month at Turfway Park, the Phil Schoenthal-trained colt will race Saturday in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Schoenthal says he'll probably have to win to earn a run for the roses.

Steve "Cowboy" Hamilton returned to Maryland in mid-January after a three-year absence during which he rode in Texas, worked in the oil fields and broke horses in his native Oklahoma. He has won 31 races at Laurel through Friday - good for No. 5 among local jockeys - and broken into the top 100 nationally in wins and earnings. His mounts have paid an average of nearly $18 to win.

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