The 7,421 horseplayers who attended Laurel Race Course on opening day might have had trouble comprehending why the track is in such dire financial condition.
Yesterday's interesting, competitive program launched what probably will be the best three weeks of racing in Maryland this year. The physical plant -- with its bright, airy grandstand -- looked good, and there were a few nice new touches, like television monitors in clubhouse boxes. The racing surface, a chronic problem in recent years, seemed to be in excellent shape.
Yet despite the track's virtues, this 60-day season may well be the last one run under the management of John D. Schapiro, track president.
Laurel lost nearly $500,000 in its most recent fiscal year accounting, and there is no evidence to suggest that 1981 will be any better. Various groups have been bidding to buy the track, and a transaction could be concluded this fall, although Schapiro denies any deal is imminent.
The patrons at Laurel yesterday probably feel more optimistic about their immediate financial prospects than Schapiro does. The opening day at a track always fosters optimism, and this opening day made the Laurel season look more promising than usual.
For years, Laurel's racing surface has confounded both horseplayers and the track officials responsible for maintaining it. Rebuilt in 1972, it was plagued by problems and rebuilt again in 1980. This year significant changes were made in the drainage system for both the main track and the turf course.
Although the track won't be truly tested until it has to bear up under heavy rains, it did seem quite normal yesterday. The times of races were neither too fast nor too slow -- $4,000 claimers ran the one-mile first race in 1:39 3/5 -- and the track seemed to give an edge to horses with early speed. Stretch runners who tried to loop their fields on the turn had little success.
In the feature race, the $71,200 Laurel Turf Cup, New York's Change the Patch rallied in the stretch to score a nose victory.
Jockey Don MacBeth kept the former claiming horse within striking distance all the way, made his move and took the lead in midstretch.
He seemed to be overtaken in the final yards by Majesty's World but won by the bob of a nose. He covered the 1 1/2 miles in 2:29 1/5 and paid $22.20.