The Maryland Racing Commission voted to allow racing at Laurel Park to resume Saturday, after an independent consultant deemed the surface safe and made recommendations on how it should be maintained going forward.
John Passero, who previously worked as a track superintendent at Laurel, Pimlico Race Course and the former Bowie Race Track, was selected by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association after a cluster of injuries, five fatal, in the month of April.
In his report to the commission, Passero said tractors driving over the dirt track with a harrow — a metal frame with teeth that breaks up and smooths the surface — between races should move slower, and recommended using a different type of harrow that should “give the cushion significantly more body in short order.”
He also called for changes in how the track is watered “so the surface does not explode under horse’s feet.”
All the maintenance changes have been approved by the Maryland Jockey Club, according to the report.
“With the recommended adjusted watering and harrowing performed this morning, I have already noticed significantly more body in the track,” Passero said in the report.
Alan Foreman, counsel for the MTHA, said these maintenance adjustments were made with the goal of keeping the moisture content of the surface more consistent and making sure the track as a whole is uniform throughout.
“John’s job is to ensure that the surface is uniform at all times, that the maintenance procedures ensure that will be the case, and that there is sufficient cushion to protect the horses,” he told The Banner.
Trainers who have used the track since Passero’s recommendations were implemented have already noticed a difference, Foreman said.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman Jr., who founded the Retired Racehorse Project and previously served as president of the Maryland Horse Council, sent a letter to constituents Thursday praising the horsemen.
“They refused to race their horses because they believed that the racing surface at Laurel Park was unsafe,” he said. “They chose horse welfare over purse money, even as [Stronach], the Canadian company that owns Laurel and Pimlico, insisted that the surface was safe.”
The return of racing comes after a weeklong standoff between the Maryland Jockey Club and horsemen over the safety of Laurel’s dirt track.
Of the five horses who were euthanized in April, two, 4-year-old colt Golden Pegasus and 6-year-old gelding Bigmancan, were injured in back-to-back races on Thursday, April 20, according to a letter from MTHA President Timothy Keefe and Maryland Horse Breeders Association President Kent Murray. Both horses were eventually euthanized.
The next day, Keefe called for a weekend suspension of racing and for the bulk of racing and training activities to be moved to Pimlico Race Course starting April 27. The Preakness meet is already scheduled to start May 11.
Horsemen also called for Passero to analyze the dirt track.
“We the horsemen would be much more comfortable having an assessment done by someone we’ve had a relationship with in the past,” Keefe told The Banner.
The Maryland Jockey Club suspended racing that weekend, a decision made in consultation with state regulators, “to understand and address any issues of concern raised relating to recent injuries,” the organization said.
The Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, brought in a superintendent from the West Coast, Dennis Moore, to examine the racing surface. Moore made a number of improvements to another Stronach property, Santa Anita Park, after dozens of horses suffered fatal injuries there in 2019.
By April 22, the track had been analyzed with a series of tests — including methods such as ground penetrating radar and laser diffraction analysis — and deemed safe, the Maryland Jockey Club said. But races for April 27 were canceled due to a lack of entries.
Horsemen “have determined not to submit entries for this Thursday’s racing card. Hopefully after reviewing the facts live racing will proceed,” the organization said.
In their letter dated April 22, Keefe and Murray said Passero “has a deep understanding of racetrack maintenance and safety and is well aware of the intricacies and challenges of surfaces in the Mid-Atlantic region, which differ greatly from Florida and California where other [Stronach] tracks are located.”
Just before an emergency Maryland Racing Commission meeting on the dispute, the two sides agreed to have Passero conduct his own analysis, with the MTHA footing the bill.
In a statement released Wednesday night, the Maryland Jockey Club said it was pleased Passero’s initial findings “affirmed the safety of Laurel Park’s dirt surface.”
Throughout the impasse, the Stronach Group has called for owners and trainers in Maryland to agree to updated safety and veterinary protocols similar to those implemented in California after the high-profile rise in deaths at Santa Anita in 2019.
Dr. Dionne Benson, the company’s chief veterinary officer, told The Banner that one of those changes requires attending veterinarians, who work for the trainers, to screen a horse before every race or high-speed workout.
“Once we made that requirement that they did see them on a regular basis, they got to know these horses better,” she said. “They knew which ones should be racing, which ones should be training.”
Meanwhile, the vets who are employed by the track have greater access to medical records and oversight of horses in training. They also maintain a database and can look for risk factors such as a horse being on the vet list, being off workouts for 90 days, or being claimed multiple times.
In Maryland, trainers have more latitude on when to work out a horse, Benson said, and veterinarians employed by the track can only jump in if a horse is clearly unsound. And the vets employed by the track don’t have the same level of information, she added.
She said the changes have worked well in California, leading to a decline in racing and training fatalities.
“Having lived through this in California, I can say there was certainly some skepticism on the part of the trainers there,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s anybody who would want to go back.”