When Laurel,s race track practically fell apart, forcing a temporary shift of its meeting to Pimlico, officials blamed the continual heavy rains that had inundated the racing survace.
Cynics, however, noted that the same storm clouds that hovered over Laurel had also dumped rain on the area,s other tracks--Charlers Town, Bowie and Pimlico--and none of them turned into a replica of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Was Laurel a victim of bad luck? Or its own mismanagement?
Certainly, Laurel's intentions were good. Because the racing strip has been the object of frequent criticism over the years, management decided to rebuild its base before the season began Oct. 1. The track was in use until mid-August, because horses racing at Bowie were stabled there, but officials thought that six weeks would be enough to get the renovation done. This was a fatal miscalculation.
The work was finally finished five days before Laurel was scheduled to open. "I sure wouldn't recommend cutting it that close,"said the superintendent of another major Eastern track. "You just aren't going to have time to work on any problems that arise. tAnd you always have problems."
Laurel's problems with the base of its track began immediately. Ordinarily, the base is the hard underpinning of a track over which the topsoil--the cushion--is spread. But a base only becomes hard after the passage of time, after the pounding of thousands of horses' hooves has packed it down. Laurel's base was still a loose mixture of clay and sand.
when the rain started to fall, the base wasn't hard and water-repellent. Instead, the clay absorbed the moisture, and turned soft. While this was happening, Laurel was starting to conduct its first week of racing, and harrows had to work on the track every day.
Some of the soft clay from the base of the track was worked into the cushion. When jockeys complained about dangerous "soft spots" in the track, this is what they were feeling.
To remove them, the track maintenance crew has removed the entire cushion and gone back to work on the base again, hoping to have the whole job done in the next two weeks. Past performances do not lead a neutral observer to believe that they will do it well, if at all.
laurel's racing surface has evoked complaints from horsemen and bewildered horseplayers with its inconsistencies ever since it was constructed in 1972. There is presumably nothing wrong with its design; the base is virtually identical in composition to that at Keeneland and at the New York Racing Association tracks.
Those tracks, however, have an expert professional in charge of maintaining them, a man whose job is knowing how to keep a track safe and uniform. Laurel used to have a track superintendent in Marty Meyer, but it let him go and hasn't had one since. Now it's hard to tell who is in charge, if anybody.
"they've got five experts out there, and you can't get two of them to agree on how to handle it," said Fendall Clagett, head of the area's Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "There's a lot of confusion."
While the confusion reigns at Laurel, racing will be shifted to Pimico Thursday. This is a misfortune not only for Laurel's management, but also for Washington-area horseplayers, who have only this brief time of the year to enjoy good racing in temperate weather and a convenient location. The long drive to Pimlico is nopleasure, but at least when he gets there a bettor won't have to worry that his horse may disappear into a pothole