Updated on 09/17/2011 11:22PM

Amid Maryland gloom, Laurel booms

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WASHINGTON - Amid the controversy over plans to shut down racing in Maryland for half the year, amid all the gloom surrounding the prospects of the state's Thoroughbred tracks, a remarkable phenomenon is occurring at Laurel Park.

Since the track's fall season began two weeks ago, business has been booming. Wagering totals have far surpassed the figures from previous autumns; Laurel's big new turf course has helped produced a much-improved racing product with large, competitive fields that bettors relish. These results must prompt a reconsideration of the plans by Magna Entertainment, Laurel's owner, to close the track at this time of the year and conduct live racing in the state only from November through May.

Horsemen bitterly denounced Magna's proposal. Plenty of other parties have criticized the Canadian company for its operation of tracks in Maryland and elsewhere. But Magna deserves credit for at least one smart idea. The company's chairman, Frank Stronach, is a staunch believer in the importance of good racing surfaces, and Magna spent more than $20 million on the project to rebuild Laurel's turf course. That investment is now paying off.

Turf races are popular with horsemen and the betting public, but most tracks can't offer nearly as many such races as they would like. Grass courses can withstand only so much wear and tear, and over the years Laurel's proved less durable than most. So Magna built a new course, 142 feet wide, that allowed the inside rail to be moved to six different locations. It is like six turf courses in one, and it permits a fuller schedule of grass racing. On the first Friday of the meeting, Laurel carded three grass races that drew competitive fields of 11, 13, and nine horses. The winners paid 32-1, 6-1, and 7-1, and the trifecta in each race returned more than $1,400. Those are the types of events that bettors like. Laurel's dirt races have been better than usual, too, in part because the four-day-a-week racing schedule in September puts less pressure on the horse population and results in larger fields, too. Overall, Laurel has averaged 9.6 starters per race - compared with eight per race during the comparable period last year.

"Our racing has been outstanding - as good as any place in the country," declared Lou Raffetto Jr., Laurel's chief operating officer.

Before the start of the Laurel season, no rational person could have offered an upbeat assessment of Maryland racing. Beset by competition from nearby tracks that offered higher purse money, the daily fare at Laurel and Pimlico was frequently dismal. The poor quality of the product affected wagering by out-of-state bettors. A horseplayer sitting in a simulcast facility may have more than a dozen tracks from which to choose, and he's likely to ignore the ones offering small fields and bad horses. Simulcast bettors were beginning to perceive Maryland as a minor-league circuit.

But this tough audience has responded to the racing from Laurel. In the first eight days of the meeting, wagering by out-of-state customers has averaged a formidable $1,986,544 per day - compared with $1,098,704 for the comparable period last year, when racing was being conducted at Pimlico. Betting by in-state customers is up, too, by more than 25 percent.

On the day Laurel opened, Magna revealed its plan for the future of Maryland racing. With business suffering, it called for a cutback to 112 days of live racing during the year, allowing Laurel and Pimlico to offer larger purses that would be competitive with their neighbors'. To the astonishment of most people, the plan called for Laurel to operate mostly during the winter months, when the weather wouldn't permit the use of its new turf course.

Magna remains committed to the 112-day plan. But after the early results at Laurel, Raffetto acknowledged, "We may tweak the schedule to maximize use of the turf course."

Magna's plans require more than tweaking. If the company sticks to the 112-day schedule but keeps Laurel open for turf racing in the fall, it would have to shut down for some period in the middle of winter. This would create a significant hardship for horsemen. At other times of the year, they have abundant opportunities to ship their horses to other tracks in the mid-Atlantic region. But there are few such opportunities in the middle of winter. Owners and trainers can't afford to let their horses stand idle for a month or so, with no money-making opportunities, so that Magna can have exactly the schedule it wants.

A more logical revision of the Magna plan, and one fairer to the horsemen, would be this: Operate the Maryland racing season from September through the Preakness, with tracks racing four days per week. That would add up to a bit more than 150 dates - not as few as Magna wanted but still a significant enough cutback to generate larger purses. A four-day week (which horsemen have traditionally opposed) would bolster the size of the fields during the months when turf racing is not feasible. If horsemen and management can make compromises and agree on an intelligent racing schedule, Maryland might sustain the momentum generated in the past two weeks at Laurel.

(c) 2005, The Washington Post