03/17/2006 12:00AM

Laurel starting turf races

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Spring is arriving earlier than usual in Maryland, where Laurel Park will become the first track in the mid-Atlantic region to open its turf course.

Wednesday's card, drawn on Friday, includes the season's first turf race. The one-mile allowance drew 20 older horses, including six also-eligibles.

Usually, grass racing in Maryland begins the third week of April at Pimlico. But Laurel's new turf course, widened from 75 feet to 142 feet last summer, has sufficient drainage that the track's turf superintendent, Robbie Mitten, was able to get it in shape for racing in March.

"The grass is green and it's growing. In fact, Robbie already had it cut and vacuumed 10 days ago," said Glen Kozak, Laurel's track superintendent.

The turf course accommodates six track configurations, depending on the placement of the rails. The two inside courses, not used since last fall, will be used for at least one turf race per day during the last 19 days of Laurel's winter meet, including the Dahlia Stakes on April 15.