Race to finish has slowed to crawl Race to finish slows to crawl

There's no saving ground in the bid to get the rebuilding of Laurel's surfaces back on track.

December 20, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The large backhoe clawed into the earth, digging out another troublesome section of the new racetrack at Laurel Park. The section on the first turn of the dirt track proved unsteady last week when a truck drove over it, forcing workers to dig it out and shore up the foundation.

That image may best illustrate the massive project by Magna Entertainment Corp., parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club, to rebuild the dirt and turf courses at Laurel Park, one of the state's two major thoroughbred tracks.

Projected to cost more than $10 million and take three months, it has so far cost more than $20 million and will have taken six months to complete only half the job - that is, if the dirt track opens next week. Opening of the turf course has been delayed until July or August; at least that's the latest projection.

Track executives told the Maryland Racing Commission a week ago that Laurel would reopen for training the day after Christmas and open for racing Jan. 22. That was the fourth time they had pushed back the opening since the project was approved at a contentious racing commission meeting in June.

Magna and MJC officials acknowledge problems with the reconstruction. But they insist that the problems have been resolved and that the dirt track at Laurel is merely days from completion.

"While it's been a long and bumpy road, I'm confident we're about ready to wrap up this project," said Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the MJC. He promised a dirt track "we can be proud of."

Al Akman, who heads the racing commission's subcommittee overseeing the track's completion, said people have no idea of the size of the project.

"It's like they're building an airport," Akman said.

According to track officials, workers moved 500,000 cubic yards of dirt. They trucked in 15,000 tons of limestone, 20,000 tons of topsoil, 25,000 tons of sand and 71,000 tons of stone mixed with crushed stone.

They brought in 15,000 linear feet of fiber-optic cable and 15 miles of electrical wiring. When they sod the turf course, scheduled for April, they will lay down 18 acres of grass.

Workers raised the racing surfaces from 5 to 9 feet to help facilitate drainage. They expanded the width of the dirt track from 75 feet to 92 feet and the turf course from 75 feet to 140 feet.

Bigger, better track

When patrons peer down upon the track for the first time they'll see a mammoth dirt surface that will accommodate more horses for training and, once it's green with grass, a gargantuan turf course that will accommodate more horses for racing.

The turf course is wide enough to accommodate six racing strips. That will enable racing officials to schedule five or six turf races per day. Turf races are popular with bettors because they usually attract fuller fields than dirt races.

Replacing the turf course was the impetus for launching the immense track-rebuilding project - and for displacing horses and horsemen from Laurel and for continuing to race at Pimlico Race Course. The old turf course at Laurel did not drain adequately, causing race cancellations after even the slightest rainfall. That the new turf course isn't close to completion has fueled criticism of the often-delayed project.

"We were supposed to be on a new turf course in September; that was the whole reason for doing this," said John Franzone, a member of the racing commission. "Here we are into winter, and we don't even have our dirt track back."

The undertaking was controversial from the beginning. Leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which represents thoroughbred owners and trainers, pleaded with commissioners not to allow Magna, which is based in Canada, to embark upon the project. They said Magna had not done sufficient planning and had never built a winter racetrack.

`Class A' disaster

Richard Hoffberger, president of the horsemen's group, recently called the project a "Class A disaster" because of design flaws and faulty execution. He told racing commissioners last week that the track was likely not to hold together once it began freezing and thawing. He implored the commission to bring in an outside expert to test and monitor the track.

The main problems have stemmed from soggy ground under the tracks; the racing surfaces sit atop a flood plain. Workers had trouble stabilizing the foundation so it would support a secure racing surface. When areas in the track proved unsteady, workers had to dig it out and shore up the foundation with tightly compacted rock and sometimes concrete.

Ted Malloy, the project supervisor, said Hoffberger's concerns were ill-founded. Malloy said the last of those unsteady spots was fixed last weekend. The "cushion," the actual racing surface (89 percent sand, 11 percent silt and clay), will be put down this week, he said.

A busy man

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