Laurel Race Course, which opens its season on Monday, should have been the showpiece of Maryland racing in recent years.
Its physical facilities are the best in the state; in fact, Laurel's bright, airy grandstand may be the most pleasant glass-enclosed facility in the country.
The track's geographic location is ideal. And for the first few weeks of its season, at least, Laurel offers interesting, high-quality racing.
Yet these vertues have been obscured and rendered almost irrelevant by one horrible defect: Laurel's racing surface would have been an embarrassment to the lowliest bush-league track.
The turf course, site of the Washington, D.C. International, rarely resembled turf. It was usually more like a bog, and when horses weren't stumbling and falling on it they seemed to be running in slow motion.
For all its faults, the grass course was a marvel of engineering compared to the main dirt track. Built in 1972, the 1 1/8-mile oval not only looked strange -- with an unearthly orangeish he -- but horses ran strangely over it. In that first season they ran disconcertingly slow; six furlong races were sometimes clocked in a tortoiselike 1:18. Over the years, the surface seemed inconsistent and unpredictable. And finally, last fall, the track fell apart. iLiterally. After a period of heavy rain, the base of the track deteriorated so badly that racing had to be transferred to Pimlico.
So when John J. Mooney was hired as Laurel's president and general manager earlier this year, he didn't have to look far to find his top priority. mAs a racing executive in Canada he had gained a lot of experience buildling and maintaining tracks, and this summer he undertook an $800,000 construction job at Laurel.
Mooney supervised the building of a new stone base for the track, one that would be largely impervious to water. The old base was more like gravel and moisture ate into it.
Then Mooney selected a combination of soils that would be blended to form the racing surface. Their grains had jaged edges that would bind together.
"On the old track," he said, "the grains were smooth and when they mixed with water they'd dissipate. The soil became like quicksand."
Laurel improved its drainage system so water would run smoothly off the track and flow into an infield lake. Mooney also ordered construction of a training track inside the turf course so that the main strip can be closed on some mornings, enabling the maintenance crew to care for it properly.
To Mooney, this project's purpose was more than merely sparing Laurel further embarrassment. He considered the condition of the track to be the very basis of good racing.
"The public may not be aware of it," he said, "but I think the track is the most important thing in the sport. If you have a good track the racing will be more formful and you help your customers. The better the track the higher the percentage of winning favorites. Jockeys are more comfortable riding on a good track, so when the weather gets worse they won't be worrying about pulling their horses up.
And on a good track horses stay healthier so you can have large fields and better racing."
Mooney insists that he won't have any opening-day jitters on Monday. Horses have been training over the new surface for a few weeks, and he is confident that the track will withstand nine races a day plus anything that Mother Nature can dish out.
Local horseplayers may be skeptical, but they are also hopeful. Maryland racing has been so deplorable for so long that the time has come for somebody to offer good racing in a pleasant facility over a reliable track.