Snowflakes blew in a strong wind at Laurel Park yesterday as trainers based at the track and at the Bowie Training Center saddled their horses in cold paddocks for an afternoon of subdued racing.
With the horses of fellow trainers who stable at Pimlico Race Course quarantined by an outbreak of equine herpes virus and out-of-state horses forbidden by their own tracks from shipping in, only 45 horses went to post on a Laurel card shortened from nine to eight races.
The horsemen who were able to compete found little joy, even with improved prospects for winning.
"Horsemen in the short term like a short field, but over the long term, we need larger, competitive fields. That's been proven time and again," said trainer Ferris Allen.
Their attitudes seemed to match the heavy, gray sky.
"I think we're all a little edgy," said Allen, whose horses are stabled in the Laurel barns. "We're all just paying close attention to our own horses, making sure everything is all right."
"It's very unfortunate for the people at Pimlico, who are kind of stuck," said trainer Tim Tullock. "But the decision had to be made to protect the whole horse population. You have to draw the line, and I absolutely feel more comfortable since the quarantine."
At Pimlico, the virus has resulted in two horses being euthanized and nine others becoming ill and showing symptoms ranging from fever to extensive neurological problems.
Tuesday, Department of Agriculture veterinarian Dr. Guy Hohenhaus said an outrider's pony at Laurel also had tested positive for the virus but was showing no signs of the illness.
Yesterday, the pony, now in an otherwise empty barn at Pimlico, was still in good health. Officials were waiting the results of a nasal test that would reveal whether the horse, though showing no signs of the virus, was shedding the disease and therefore a risk to other horses.
The Maryland Jockey Club said yesterday that it will offer owners and trainers at Laurel and the Bowie Training Center the opportunity to meet with Maryland Racing Commission veterinarian Dr. David Zipf in the Laurel track kitchen at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow to hear an update on the virus situation and to ask questions.
Trainers who heard of the meeting had mixed feelings. Though no one seemed overly concerned about the infected outrider pony, there was still plenty of worry about the overall situation.
Trainer Dale Capuano said quickly: "They should have this meeting with us." Trainer Chris Grove, who stables his horses at Bowie, said: "I'm very interested in what [Zipf] has to say."
Tullock, however, paused long before giving his opinion.
"I think they've been two weeks behind on everything they've done," he said.
A week ago, entries at Laurel Park were already declining as out-of-state horses stopped shipping in. That was a blow, as 30 percent of the track's entries come from out of state.
But the quarantine, sidelining about 500 horses at Pimlico, has made the daily lineup at Laurel even sparser, a situation that has not gone unnoticed by racing fans.
"There's not much to bet on," said Kirk Brady of Laurel as he turned away from the rail just before the four-horse sixth race. "Who knows what will happen to Maryland racing now? I think we're on our way out, anyway, without the slots and now this epidemic. ... Even before this virus hit, we didn't have the grade of horses we used to have."
"Betting sure isn't as much fun," said Ed Sullivan of Clarksville. "But I'll continue to come. I'm retired. This is my pastime, and it takes the boredom out of sitting around the house."
Fields today and tomorrow will be full, with more than 80 horses scheduled to run in the regularly scheduled nine races each day. But MJC racing secretary Georganne Hale said she is having difficulty filling Saturday's card.
"I'll have nine [races]," she said, "but the fields are very short - six or seven horses. Only the stakes has nine. This is just the way it has evolved. I hoped it wouldn't happen like this on a Saturday, but we're going to struggle every day."
Yesterday, two of the races had just four horses, including the sixth, in which In Tandem crunched Pentathlete, who was on the rail down the stretch.
It seemed almost impossible for two horses on the wide Laurel Park course to collide over the 5 1/2 -furlong distance. But In Tandem was disqualified for the move, and Lemons of Love, who came from far back to finish second under the hands of Ryan Fogelsonger (who had four of the eight winners yesterday), was declared the winner, paying $7.20 and $2.80.
Pentathlete finished third and was placed second after the inquiry.
The track did not offer a show bet on the four-horse races.
"I had no shippers [horses coming from out of state] today," said Hale. "And I had a lot of scratches. I would have loved it if a blizzard had hit."