The Maryland Jockey Club and associations representing horsemen and breeders reached an agreement Tuesday to have a consultant test the racing surface at Laurel Park, just before state regulators held an emergency meeting on recent discord over the safety of the track.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s handpicked consultant, John Passero, will examine the dirt track at Laurel and present his findings to all the parties and the Maryland Racing Commission.
The MTHA will pay Passero, who previously worked as a track superintendent at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the former Bowie Race Track. He’ll begin Wednesday, the group said.
“He understands the nuances of racing in the mid-Atlantic. And he understands the nuances of racing surfaces in the mid-Atlantic and the composition of material necessary for those tracks to safely operate,” said Alan Foreman, counsel for the MTHA. “More importantly, he has the respect and support of the entire Maryland racing community. And that is critically necessary right now.”
The Maryland Racing Commission called Tuesday’s emergency meeting over the weekend, when the Maryland Jockey Club said the racing surface at Laurel had been thoroughly tested and deemed safe but Thursday’s racing card was cancelled “due to insufficient entries.”
In a letter to the Maryland Jockey Club on Saturday, MTHA president Timothy Keefe and Maryland Horse Breeders Association President Kent Murray said horse racing in the state “is facing a catastrophic emergency” after five horses died this month as a result of injuries.
“The condition of the dirt track is a serious threat to the life and safety of both riders and horses and must be immediately addressed,” they wrote. “Horsemen are concerned for the safety of riders and horses, and many owners have taken their horses off the track or sent to other racetracks and training facilities, which is eroding the great racing product Maryland is able to offer.”
The Maryland Jockey Club suspended racing last weekend after two horses suffered serious injuries in back-to-back races on Thursday, the same day horsemen met with consultants to discuss track conditions.
Golden Pegasus, a 4-year-old colt, sustained a “catastrophic injury” leaving the far turn in Race 4 and tossed jockey William Humphrey. The horse was euthanized on the track, according to race notes maintained by Equibase.
In the very next race, Bigmancan, a 6-year-old gelding, pulled up lame on the backstretch and was taken away in an equine ambulance, according to Equibase. He was later euthanized, Keefe and Murray confirmed.
Later, at the conclusion of Race 7, 5-year-old Excellorator was taken away in an equine ambulance after finishing third in the $44,000 allowance optional claiming race, they said.
Earlier in the week, 7-year-old mare Witty Banter shattered a pastern — a bone near the top of the hoof — while training and was euthanized, they said.
The Maryland Jockey Club previously suspended racing after two horses broke down during training hours on Saturday, April 8. According to Keefe and Murray, both were euthanized. They said jockeys refused to race that afternoon “because of obvious inconsistencies of the surface after inclement weather,” which is what prompted the card to be nixed.
Speaking with The Banner last week, Keefe said the increase in injuries has been a cause of concern for trainers.
“All we know what to do out there is train our horses. We don’t know how to maintain the racetrack,” he said. “We just know as horsemen when we see something different, our athletes are moving a little differently over the racetrack, or we’re seeing a rash of injuries that we’re not used to seeing.”
The Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, brought in Dennis Moore — a West Coast track superintendent who oversaw changes at Santa Anita Park after the spate of fatalities in 2019 — to conduct an analysis of Laurel’s racing surface.
After the breakdowns, Keefe issued a letter urging the Maryland Jockey Club to move the majority of racing and training activities to Pimlico starting April 27. The Preakness meet is already scheduled to start Thursday, May 11, and run through Monday, May 29. He also called on the Maryland Jockey Club to let Passero conduct an independent analysis of the racing surface.
Officials with the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, a new oversight group tasked with implementing uniform safety protocols and anti-doping rules across the country, are also investigating the matter, the organization said in a statement.
Ann McGovern, HISA’s director of racetrack safety, is analyzing the racing surface “and whether it poses any risk to horses and riders,” the organization said.
While the Maryland Jockey Club has called for horsemen to agree to updated veterinary and safety protocols similar to ones put in place in California, Foreman said racing fatalities are down in the state since tracks in the mid-Atlantic agreed to their own plan in 2019. But they also won’t object to making changes in the name of equine safety.
This recent cluster of deaths has been a red flag, he said, leading the owners and trainers to call for the pause in activity so the dirt track can be investigated.
“If there’s anything that we’re not doing that they recommend that’s practical and we can implement, we’ll do it,” Foreman said. “That’s not the issue here. The issue here is the racing surface.”