Some negativists who attended Laurel Race Course yesterday might have concluded that the track has a lame-duck management that spent no effort or money preparing for the start of its 1984 season. This is absolutely untrue, and the evidence will be given later in this essay.
However, there were a few little deficiencies evident on opening day at Laurel, such as the condition of the race track.
When the horses in the first race needed 1:16 1/5 to cover three-quarters of a mile, it was immediately obvious that the track resembled a plowed field (except that more extensive maintenance work is done on most plowed fields). These conditions are as tough for horseplayers as they are for horses, because it can be hard to predict how a thoroughbred will handle such an extraordinarily deep surface.
The turf course doesn't look much better than the main track. No horses have set foot on it since last fall, but my front yard looks greener, lusher and better kept than the site of the Washington, D.C. International. (Only my neighbors can appreciate the enormity of that statement.)
While it was ignoring the racing strips, Laurel's maintenance crew was evidently ignoring the grandstand, too. This is, or, at least, ought to be, Maryland's most pleasant thoroughbred track, but the place looked depressingly grimy yesterday. Floors were dirty, and some of the seats had apparently not been touched by a cloth or sponge since closing day 1983.
But these are mere quibbles. Laurel offset them all with one bold, dazzling stroke.
As patrons came into the gates, they saw that the world-famous track had become the first in America to offer billboard advertising in the infield!
To the left of the odds board, in vivid red that contrasted nicely with the brown of the turf course, was a sign that read:
16 EUROPEAN CITIES
And to the right of the tote board was a striking green-and-white billboard advertising Ford trucks. What a backdrop it will make for the races here!
There had been concern that the track's management might become complacent this season, since more rumors than usual indicate that Laurel is going to be sold within the next few months. There also was a suspicion that management might have stopped caring about its traditional big attractions, since the Breeders' Cup will upstage and devalue the International, as well as Laurel's big 2-year-old races, the Futurity and the Selima.
But now those fears are laid to rest. Maryland racing fans can look forward to Oct. 20 when (after taking care to wipe off their seats) they can sit back and watch the International field thunder into racing history, right after it passes the big, red Pan Am sign.