Story originally published on September 19, 2013, on DanonymousRacing.com
Laurel, MD – It’s 9 am on the morning before the big day, opening day of the fall meet. The warm air above the track is filled with familiar music, the rhythmic pounding of hooves and vocals provided by exercise riders (including one rider who can literally be heard from the empty grandstand singing to his horse) trying to encourage the beasts beneath them.
The scene is indeed serene and everyone I talk to is waxing poetic about the track’s aesthetic beauty, highlighted by its finely-manicured turf course which hasn’t seen any action in more than six months. In fact, it’s been 102 days since either of Maryland’s major racetracks (Laurel and Pimlico) has featured any live racing at all.
“I think we’re all just excited to be back racing,” said Mike Gathagan, Vice President of Communications for the Maryland Jockey Club. “It’s been a long summer and we’re ready to go.”
Making Maryland A Destination For Racing Again
As closely as an avid handicapper reviews a horse’s trip on a race replay, so too will racing officials here be monitoring the response of out-of-state horsemen to an array of growing incentives designed to attract bigger and better fields. Laurel and Pimlico had struggled to keep up with larger purses offered at tracks like Delaware Park, Parx (formerly Philadelphia Park) and Charles Town (in West Virginia). Then, late last year, the Maryland Racing Commission and the state reached a deal designed to allow Maryland’s tracks to increase their purses by dipping into VLT (video lottery terminal) or casino-generated revenue, as their competition in the Mid-Atlantic has done for years.
Long term, the hope is that the expansions of casinos in Maryland could result in nearly $400,000 in daily purse money, based on initial projections. Last year’s fall meet purse average was more than $275,000 a day, according to published reports, and those numbers are expected to go up again this year. The response from out-of-state horsemen to this upcoming Laurel meet could be one of the first real indicators of the actual impact of the larger purses.
“I think as you’ve seen with the first two overnights – the horsemen are ready to run,” Gathagan said. “Entries are good for the first two days… there’s a lot of competition right now (with other Mid-Atlantic tracks) but so far the meet is starting off the way we were hoping.”
From Laurel’s racing offices to the backstretch, that feeling of renewed optimism is pervasive. In the Richard Small barn, assistant trainer, Dylan Smith, told us she’s especially excited about the upcoming meet. By her estimation, bigger purses will draw bigger racing outfits, which will lead to better horses on the circuit and, most importantly, greater interest from horse players in betting on Maryland racing. Smith isn’t worried about stiffer competition shipping in either – she welcomes it.
“It’s just nice to see people paying more attention to Laurel,” said Smith.
“With this meet in particular, I’m excited to see who comes in from out of town and wants to run,” Smith said. “Every year you hear all these rumors about who might ship in but I’m really interested, now that these purses are getting more appealing, who is going to come?”
Another incentive for them to come will be a new Maryland-bred bonus program. Effective with the start of the Laurel meet, breeders of Maryland-bred horses who finish in the top three in any and all races will begin receiving bonuses, which will increase and expand to owners of Maryland-bred horses within the next few years, as well.
Starting Off on the Grass and Honoring A Great
As for what you’ll see if you head out to Laurel for opening weekend, expect a lot of action on the aforementioned turf course. In particular, Saturday’s card will feature six turf stakes ,which all appear loaded with capable horses and huge fields. Laurel’s richest race, the $350,000 De Francis Memorial, will also be held on Saturday.
Lastly, Ramon Dominguez, the Eclipse Award winning jockey who recently retired due to injury, will be at Laurel on Saturday signing autographs from 2:00-3:00 pm in the grandstand. The signing session will be preceded by the Maryland Jockey Club honoring Dominguez with a donation to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which will take place in the winner’s circle presentation following the second race.