12/30/2010 4:57PM

Laurel begins 49-day winter meet

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Until last week, when the Maryland Jockey Club and its owners, MI Developments and Penn National Gaming, reached an agreement with the state’s horsemen, there was a veil of uncertainty whether there would be any live racing in Maryland in 2011. But Laurel Park will open its gates Saturday for a 49-day meet that runs through March 26, the start of a 146-day season divided into three meets at Laurel and Pimlico.

Laurel will operate Wednesday through Saturday this winter. On Thursday, the track finalized a 15-race stakes schedule, highlighted by two Grade 2 events, the Barbara Fritchie Handicap and the General George Handicap. Both are $150,000 races that will be contested at seven furlongs over Presidents Day weekend in February.

“We couldn’t focus on the stakes schedule until we had racing dates,” racing secretary Georganne Hale said. “Having a Saturday stakes program is important because it means better horses and people like to come out to watch them run.”

The highest class race Saturday’s nine-race card is a second-level optional $25,000 claimer (race 8), which drew a field of five older fillies and mares going a mile. The slight favorite, Lilly Quatorze, cleared her first allowance condition Dec. 10 by scoring a wire-to-wire win by 4 1/2 lengths.

The meet marks the return to action of jockey Sheldon Russell, who missed the final two months of the 2010 season while recovering from eight broken ribs suffered in a spill on Oct. 30. Russell trailed Forest Boyce in the rider standings by only three wins prior to the injury. Russell, 23, has three mounts on opening day, including stakes winner Northpoint Costas in race 6, a 5 1/2-furlong sprint for $12.500 claimers.

“I am happy because the goal was to be back January 1st,” said Russell, “I have been working horses in the morning the last two weeks and really started feeling really good just before Christmas.”