Updated on 09/15/2011 12:46PM

Laurel woes only begin with the windows


WASHINGTON - Excuse the pun, but most fans are not going to be shattered by the news that six weeks of racing at Laurel Park have been transferred to Pimlico. Many will barely notice the change.

The shift has been necessitated by cracks that have appeared in the big glass windows enclosing the Laurel grandstand. Structural engineers have so far been unable to discover a cause or a remedy for the safety hazard. As a result, racing has been moved from Laurel, Md., to Baltimore from Sept. 6 to Oct. 13, the date of the Maryland Million. What happens after that is anybody's guess, although Lou Raffetto Jr., the track's chief operating officer, said, "We believe there's a good chance we'll be back in October."

In the era of simulcasting, most horseplayers sit in the bowels of Laurel and watch races on banks of television screens, oblivious to the presence of living, breathing animals outside. So it hardly matters to them if the races originate from Laurel or Pimlico. When live racing is being conducted, the seating area that overlooks the racing strip is so sparsely populated on a typical day that the glass windows could collapse or the roof could cave in without much danger to life and limb.

The change of racing dates, however, and the move of the Maryland Million, does underscore one sad fact about racing at Laurel. There is only one race of any consequence left on the fall calendar - the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash in November. The Laurel racing schedule has been so denuded of notable events that the track has almost lost its identity - an issue far more depressing than the condition of its windows. Pimlico is currently substituting for Laurel by running a 13-day summer meet that began on Wednesday.

There was a time, of course, when Laurel did generate special excitement. Before the establishment of year-round racing, the opening of Laurel marked the start of the Maryland racing season, and the track had three marquee events. The Washington D.C. International had made Laurel world-famous, and the accompanying International Turf Festival drew Thoroughbred stars from both sides of the Atlantic. The Laurel Futurity was one of the nation's best known

2-year-old stakes - won by great colts such as Secretariat, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid - and the Selima Stakes was its filly counterpart.

Now all of these races have been abandoned. This year's Futurity and Selima were canceled after the Maryland legislature discontinued its subsidy of purses at the state's tracks. Raffetto had to make the tough choices of what to cut, and he took the ax to a substantial part of Laurel's stakes schedule, trying to maintain purses for the day-to-day races that are the bread and butter to Maryland-based horsemen. Explaining his decision, Raffetto told the racing commission: "You've got to change the program. You can't give away seven million in purses to people from out of town."

Besides the needs of local horsemen, there is another rationale for trimming stakes races: the indifference of the public. In the age of simulcasting, racing fans routinely watch top horses compete from coast to coast, and so there is no novelty when big-name stars show up at the local track - as there was when Kelso, Carry Back and Sir Ivor came to town for the D.C. International. The International lost its luster years before it was canceled, and nowadays even a great race such as the Pimlico Special has trouble drawing a good crowd; only 7,357 watched the $750,000 event in May. Except for the Preakness, the Maryland Million has been the only event to generate an air of vitality and excitement at the track - and that is because of the enthusiastic support of people associated with the state's breeding industry rather than the public at large. Without the Million, it's going to be an awfully bland season at Laurel.

Even though the case can be made that tracks don't need an ambitious stakes program, the alternative is worse. Tracks need big races so that they have an identity, so that the public at large has a positive image of them. Raffetto understands this; when he was running Boston's Suffolk Downs, he put the track on the map by building up and promoting a single race, the Massachusetts Handicap. Now at Laurel, with once-famous races devalued, with others canceled because of the purse cutbacks, he says his biggest challenge will be to rebuild a stakes program.

That task will make fixing the broken windows look like a snap.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post