Laurel twilight racing on horizon

Horsemen welcome change

8-day summer meet set to begin today

Horse Racing

August 16, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

Horsemen generally don't like change. But with racing returning to Maryland for the first time in nearly two months, they're taking the addition of twilight racing in stride.

"I've been surprised by the response from fans and horsemen," said Lou Raffetto, the Maryland Jockey Club's president and chief operating officer. "Most of the horsemen are fine with it, and a lot of them are looking forward to it.

"And I'm actually anxious to get live racing under way."

The eight-day summer meet begins today at Laurel Park with a nine-race card, including three on the turf course. The mini meet will include twilight racing, with the first post at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday during both racing weeks. The two Saturday and Sunday weekend cards will begin at 1:10 p.m.

Laurel Park will offer free admission for the weekday cards during the meet along with promotions for reduced-price food and drinks.

"We are always looking for ways to improve our business and try to create new fans," Raffetto said. "A lot of our regulars are going to come out for a few hours and then go home. But what I've heard from some of the younger fans is that they're looking forward to trying something different, to being able to leave work and come out here for dinner and enjoy a few hours of racing."

Some of the enthusiasm from horsemen might just be from being able to race at their home track. No need to ship to other states. No more having to ask employees to double up the workload. No more searching for extra help.

"Absolutely, we're happy to be back," said trainer Dale Capuano, who campaigned for the summer meet. "We've been shipping around for a good two months."

The Laurel meet ends Aug. 25, when racing shifts to the Timonium racetrack at the Maryland State Fairgrounds for the eight-day state fair meet. Some Maryland trainers do not run their best horses at Timonium, choosing to wait until racing returns to Laurel Park for the 17-week fall meet that begins Sept. 6.

But trainer Tim Tullock, glad to be through with the biggest part of the long, hot summer, said he is glad for the relief but adds the only way to really improve the working conditions for local horsemen and their horses is to expand the racing season in Maryland.

"And the only way around what we have to do now is to get slots so we can afford to run in Maryland year-round," he said. "But seeing Laurel open brings joy to all the horsemen."

The Laurel stand will feature two stakes races for 3-year-old Maryland-breds, the Twixt Stakes on Saturday and the Deputed Testamony on Sunday.

Raffetto said he is not a fan of summer racing in Maryland and doesn't expect the popularity of this meet to be "so off the wall" that the track would continue twilight racing in the fall.

"But it could fill a niche for us in August, as we fill a void in other people's simulcasting schedules," he said. "And we're willing to experiment a little to reach a different audience."

And Raffetto said he is willing to be surprised.

"I didn't think the turf course was going to be as successful as it was last fall," he said, "and I have to admit I'm anxious to get back. I do prefer live racing, even though I've never been in favor of July and August racing here. For summer racing here what we really need is slots, bigger purses and [a lot more] horseflesh."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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