After long wait, the grass is greener at Laurel

Rebuilt turf course opens

Karamanos: `It's perfect'

Horse Racing

August 25, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Turf superintendent Robbie Mitten cut the yellow ribbon to officially open Laurel Park's new turf course yesterday, and Lukipela, with jockey Steve Hamilton up, led a parade of prancing racehorses onto the bright green mix of red fescue and blue grass.

With a cool breeze and bright sun in their faces, the horses and riders enjoyed their morning work, as they tested the turf that so many have been waiting for.

"It's perfect. Excellent," said jockey Horacio Karamanos after working a horse for trainer Carlos Garcia and looking at Mitten and Laurel Park chief operating officer Lou Raffetto. "I can't believe it. Did you make this track for me?"

It was a day for playful banter, but it was also a day Maryland's horsemen appreciated on a more serious level.

Maryland racing is in a battle to attract good horses while surrounded by tracks in other states capable of paying larger purses because of the extra fans and revenue brought in through slot machines.

Now, with this newly designed turf course and the one at Pimlico Race Course, Maryland can offer solid turf racing for nearly eight months, from early April into December. And Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary Georganne Hale, Raffetto and others expect to see more horses coming to Laurel Park - where the fall meet begins Sept. 7 - from other tracks to run on the new turf.

"The other tracks have been running on their turf all summer," said Hale, referring to Delaware, Monmouth, Penn National and Saratoga. "They'll have to give it a rest, and we'll be fresh."

Laurel Park's new course is state of the art. Built over the past 14 months, the course has been broadened from 75 to 142 feet. It allows six different courses for competition. That means various parts of the track can be rested during the fall and winter meet in preparation for an early April start.

Adding to its appeal is improved drainage. Veteran owner Howard Bender, who has 100 horses on his Glade Valley Farm near Frederick, said he won't miss the old turf course, "that could be wiped out for a week or two with one bad rain."

This one is expected to stay dry. Mitten said workers installed 70,000 feet of lateral drains spaced 10 feet apart to keep the course firm and fast. It also has an irrigation system for dry weather capable of delivering a half-inch of water over 18 acres in two hours.

Raffetto said Laurel and Maryland have needed this turf track for a long time.

"And it's coming online when turf racing is becoming more and more popular," he said. "Certain horses handle turf better. There are fuller fields. Fans like wagering on it. And, more often than not, turf races are more competitive, with closer finishes."

Across the turf and dirt tracks, leaning on the outside wall near the grandstand, trainer Rodney Jenkins watched his horse, Running Tide, round the fourth turn.

"He won a stakes - the Da Hoss Stakes at Colonial Downs - his last time out," said Jenkins, who stables about 50 horses here. "It was his first turf race. I'm trying to find out if he likes this course. I'm sending him over five-eighths [of a mile], and if it's good, he should run 1:03 or 1:04."

As Running Tide came by, Jenkins clicked the stopwatch in his hand.

"He worked in 1:04," he said, pleased. "One of the nice things about having this track is now we can find out if the horses we have are turf horses. ... They've done a lot of work here, and it's wonderful to see. If we can get slots one day, we'll have every big-time [racing] outfit coming in here."

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