09/03/2014 10:14AM

Laurel Park opens 65-day meet with $3.65 million stakes schedule

Barbara D. Livingston
Laurel Park kicks off a 65-day meet on Friday.

After a break of almost three months, racing will return to Maryland’s major circuit Friday, when Laurel Park begins a 65-day meet that will continue through the end of the year.

The recent seven-day Timonium meeting at the Maryland State Fair has been the only racing in Maryland since the Preakness meeting at Pimlico concluded June 7. Racing was last held at Laurel on March 29.

Entries for the opening-day card were a bit slow, but Georganne Hale, director of racing for the Maryland Jockey Club, attributed that to a bit of confusion as the races were drawn at Timonium on Monday. Friday cards are usually drawn Tuesday.

Still, the nine-race program, which includes four allowance races, has 82 entrants, more than nine per race. Five of the races will be run over the turf course, which has not been used since last fall.

“Because of the harsh winter last year, we never did get on the grass in March,” Hale said. “The turf course is beautiful.”

The Laurel Park stakes schedule of 36 races is worth $3.65 million. It is similar to last year, but there are a few changes.

◗ The $350,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, which was run during opening weekend in 2013, has been moved to Nov. 15.

◗ The $100,000 Broad Brush Stakes has been renamed for Richard Small, who trained the winner of $2.6 million. Small died in April at age 68.

◗ Five $60,000 stakes for Virginia-bred or –sired horses that would normally have been run at Colonial Downs in Virginia have been added to the schedule. Colonial did not race this summer due to a racing-dates standoff between management and horsemen.

In addition to De Francis Day, which will feature six stakes, the highlights of the meet include Maryland Million Day on Oct. 18 and a turf festival of six $100,000 stakes on Sept. 27. Four stakes are carded for this Saturday.

A goal at Laurel is for the De Francis Dash to regain its grade. A Grade 1 race from 1998 to 2007 and again in 2009, the six-furlong De Francis lost its grade after not being run in 2008 and 2010 and then being brought back for $150,000 in 2011. The purse has been $350,000 since 2012.

“We may have to start at the bottom grade and work our way back up, but we’d like it to eventually be a Grade 1 again,” Hale said.

The De Francis has bounced around the calendar in recent years. It was run in October in 2009, 2011, and 2012, and then in September last year. Prior to 2009, it was run after the Breeders’ Cup.

“By putting it back after the Breeders’ Cup, we hope to get some of the better horses before they head south for the winter,” Hale said.

The leading trainers from the Pimlico spring meet – Kieron Magee, Graham Motion, Jamie Ness, and Michael Trombetta – are all expected to participate. The jockey colony will be anchored by Trevor McCarthy, Victor Carrasco, and Sheldon Russell.

◗ One of the highlights of opening day will come in race 9, where the 9-year-old Drunken Love will try to keep his record on the Laurel turf perfect for trainer Ness and Midwest Thoroughbreds. He is unbeaten in five trips over the course.