01/14/2005 1:00AM

Track set to reopen

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It may have taken a lot longer than originally planned to get Laurel Park's newly rebuilt dirt track ready for racing. But it appears the wait was worthwhile.

The reopening means not only the return of live racing to Laurel for the first time since March, but also a diminished role for Magna Entertainment Corp.'s other Maryland track, Pimlico. With Laurel scheduled to reopen next Saturday, Pimlico, the site of the Preakness Stakes, will now hold live racing only for eight weeks, from mid-April until early June. It will no longer have a fall meet.

Judging from the comments of Laurel-based trainers who have worked their horses over the revamped 1 1/8-mile main track since it opened for training last Sunday, the new surface is great.

"I like it. They really did a classy job," said trainer Tim Salzman, who has 30 horses stabled at Laurel, including Gold Joy, who worked a four-furlong bullet in 49.20 seconds on Tuesday. "From what I can tell, it's a pretty forgiving surface and the horses just seem to glide over it."

Trainer Hamilton Smith, who has 20 horses on the grounds, agreed.

"It took a lot longer than expected to get it ready," he said, "but I think it's going to be a good racetrack."

Still to be completed is the turf course, which will be expanded from 75 to 142 feet wide when renovations are finished this spring.

Salzman and Smith both said the dirt track, widened from 75 to 95 feet, was a bit too hard the first two days it was open. The addition of more sand and harrowing by the tractors greatly improved the track's condition, the trainers said.

"Initially, time was of the essence to just get the horses out on the track," said Glen Kozak, who took over as track superintendent on Nov. 29. "Our track crew did a great job of getting it open. We rolled and floated the track after the quarter-inch of rain we had last Saturday. It says a lot that the crew was able to get the track fast by Sunday. Then on Tuesday we harrowed the track, and harrowed it again on Wednesday. The track's beautiful now. I'm really pleased."

So is the management at Magna.

"You heard it from the trainers, it was worth the wait to get it right," said Jim Gagliano, executive vice president of Maryland Racing Operations. "We look forward to a rebirth of racing at Laurel Park. All of us at Magna Entertainment and the Maryland Jockey Club would like to thank the Maryland racing community for their patience."

Plenty of patience was something everyone connected with the $20 million construction project needed in order to deal with weather-related construction delays and unexpected problems with the track's foundation. As a result, opening day at the "new" Laurel had to be pushed back several times.

Originally, Laurel was expected to be ready for its traditional fall meet in October. But the meet's start was delayed until Nov. 4, then reset for Dec. 26. Finally, Laurel will reopen for live racing Jan. 22.

Laurel-based horsemen such as Salzman and Smith had to endure daily hardships after the track was closed for training last June. They had to improvise by jogging their horses under the shed row and had to use shuttle vans provided by Magna to take their horses some 12 miles away to the Bowie Training Center for workouts.

"I used an empty barn next to mine for jogging and galloping," Smith said. "Then, three or four times a week I would take horses that had to work to Bowie."

Workers moved 500,000 cubic yards of dirt and trucked in 15,000 tons of limestone, 20,000 tons of topsoil, 25,000 tons of sand, and 71,000 tons of stone mixed with crushed stone.

The track's composition of 89 percent sand and 11 percent silt and clay is identical to the old Laurel dirt surface.

"We wanted the new surface to be as close as possible to the old surface, because everybody liked it," said Kozak, who spent 13 years as track superintendent at Suffolk Downs before coming to Maryland. "The proof will be in the pudding, but so far I'm pleased with how the track has responded to any kind of weather."