You could see trainer Martin Venburg coming from far away, approaching at a near gallop in his enthusiasm. He was talking by cell phone to Daniel Lucas, owner of Eagle Head, the Pimlico Race Course-based horse who had just won the seventh race.
"I'm excited," he said into his phone as he bounded into the winner's circle. "Man, is that great! How many pictures do we want [of the winning horse]?"
Yesterday was the first day any Pimlico horse could race at Laurel Park since a blanket quarantine was placed on the track by the Maryland Jockey Club on Jan. 21 because of an outbreak of equine herpes.
And Eagle Head, a 12-1 shot who paid $26.40, $13.20 and $7.60, was the first Pimlico horse to win on a day that turned out to be very good for Pimlico horses.
Eagle Head, a 3-year-old in his first career race, started a trend as Tartlet, trained at Pimlico by Ron Alfano, won the eighth race and Cherished Memory, another horse whose trainer is based at Pimlico, won the ninth.
Cherished Memory, however, has been working at a private farm for the last month. Trainer Valora Testerman removed the four of her eight horses who were racing from Pimlico on Jan. 7, the day after the announcement of the first suspected case of the virus.
"I took my four runners away in hopes I could feed my family during any possible quarantine situation," Testerman said yesterday in the winner's circle.
"Training on the farm was good for a couple weeks, then the ground froze and I haven't been able to work them the way I like and I wasn't able to go back to Pimlico.
"I'm really, really happy the quarantine has been lifted and I can take my horses back and resume training as usual. I've been in the car so much - between the farm, which is near the [northern] Maryland state line, Pimlico and Laurel that I feel like I have a bucket seat attached."
Besides the three Pimlico winners, there were three seconds - Bing an a Prayer in the third, Sporty Ryan in the fourth and Top of the Town, who completed a $349.60 all-Pimlico exacta in the seventh race - and one third, Abby's Sister, in the ninth.
That's seven horses in the money out of 12 entries. Saturday will be the first day horses can run from Pimlico's Barn 5, where the virus outbreak began and the barn that was released from the state's hold order Tuesday morning.
Charles Frock, whose News Reporter was the first horse to be euthanized because of the virus, is the only Barn 5 trainer who has entered. He has horses scheduled in the fifth and seventh races.
"Today is a very exciting day for us," said trainer Raul Garrido, who saddled two runners yesterday. "We have been waiting to run for nearly three weeks. When you don't run, there is no income. Today is like a birthday party. Everybody is happy to be able to run again."
Despite the return of Pimlico horses, Maryland Jockey Club chief operating officer Lou Raffetto said he is canceling Sunday's card in hopes of strengthening next week's program. Laurel Park will race six straight days next week, Wednesday through Feb. 20, Presidents Day.
"Though it's great to have the hold order lifted on two barns and the general quarantine lifted, we still have three barns quarantined and no horses from other jurisdictions shipping in," Raffetto said. "With racing six days through the holiday, my concern was for the quality of the races."
This will be the third consecutive Sunday Laurel Park has canceled its racing card.
Raffetto said he has been advised that Pennsylvania tracks and Charles Town Races & Slots in West Virginia might be ready to remove their sanctions before the end of the month. Raffetto is waiting to hear from New York.
Raffetto and jockey club racing secretary Georganne Hale also have finalized dates for the rescheduling of the two Grade II, $300,000 Breeders' Cup handicaps, the Barbara Fritchie and the General George, originally scheduled for Presidents Day weekend. Those two stakes are now set for March 4 and 18, respectively.
There were no wild celebrations recognizing the return of the Pimlico trainers and horses to Laurel. Instead, there was the somewhat comforting smell of disinfectant in the receiving barn, in the paddock and at the starting gate.
In the paddock, Laurel Park trainer Hamilton Smith talked football, debated the Super Bowl refereeing and noted a Pimlico horse in the stall beside him and others in the program. He said he felt good for the Pimlico trainers who were able to go back to making their livings.
"I guess it's a bit of a relief for those people and lets us all breathe a little easier," Smith said. "It's been a hardship on those trainers ... I'm glad to see them back."