John Passero's wife kicked him out of bed the other night. This was not unprecedented. Passero had brought his two-way radio to bed with him, having told one of his men on Laurel's track-maintenance crew to call him if the temperature was dropping sharply.
It was easy to figure out what would happen, because Passero has been working in this business for the last 20 years. The call would come, and Laurel's "director of turf and race courses" would go in the middle of the night to a cold, dark, desolate race track and spend hours analyzing and working on a strip of dirt.
Frank De Francis, Laurel's president, is a workaholic himself, but even he is awed by Passero's obsession with the condition of his race track, by his regular 12- to 14-hour workdays.
De Francis hired Passero in the spring to supervise both Laurel and Pimlico, and lauded him as "the best in the business" on the basis of his record at tracks in Chicago and Toronto. Passero took some early criticism when the rail at Pimlico was deep and disadvantageous at the time of the Preakness, but since he has gained familiarity with the local tracks, they have been remarkably consistent and fair. It is relatively easy to take care of a track in warm, dry weather, so Passero's skills didn't get a meaningful test until the last three weeks.
When heavy rain deluged the area last week, it was enough to wash away the racing strip at Charles Town and force the cancellation of racing there. People familiar with Laurel's history in inclement weather could have expected trouble.
Laurel's racing strip had long been considered the worst in Maryland. There were times when it resembled a plowed field even in balmy weather, when horses would be plodding six furlongs in 1:16 on a fast track; rain and snow would always wreak havoc.
But even though the track was very wet while rain was falling on November 27, 28 and 29, it didn't get any slower than normal. When the rain finally stopped, the track was fast the next day. Other racing surfaces (and certainly Laurel's in past years) would have been a quagmire for another week.
Laurel's racing strip is still essentially the same as it has always been; the difference is evidently Passero. He is indeed an expert in an esoteric science with a language, an array of equipment and a set of problems that few outsiders can comprehend.
The ever-present problem that a superintendent faces is the task of keeping the depth of the surface uniform.
"At Laurel," Passero said, "there's a slope in the track about 50 feet from the inside rail. If you colored the material there blue, you'd see that at the end of the day the blue dirt was 40 feet from the rail. The next day it would be 30 feet out, until it got down to where the horses run. Rainy weather accelerates the process."
Keeping the track even is tricky enough in fair weather, but it is especially difficult and important in the rain.
"You can get caught in a rain and a freeze and find half the material from the track in the ditch," Passero said. He works on a sloppy track by dragging a "float" -- a 2,000-pound flat piece of steel with a curled edge -- around the track. This squeezes out the water and brings it to the top.
It's a tricky procedure. "Steel floats can singlehandedly ruin a track faster than any piece of equipment," Passero said. Maybe that's why Laurel's steel floats had been abandoned years earlier and left in a patch of weeds until Passero found them and put them back into use. But he credits the equipment for the track's ability to survive the heavy recent rain.
A track superintendent's worst enemy, though, is freezing weather. A frozen track is more than an annoyance; it is a hazard to horses and riders. "The critical time is the first hour after the temperature drops below freezing," Passero said. That is why he will frequently leave instructions that he wants to be called when the thermometer drops to 34 degrees.
Passero and his crew try to keep the track from freezing by driving tractors that pull spike-toothed farm harrows. The practice of harrowing has many crucial nuances. Passero offered this analogy: "It's like water skiing. When the boat is pulling you at 25 miles an hour, you're still in the water; at 50 miles an hour you're sitting on the top of the water. Harrows do the same; you can adjust how deep they go by changing speed, or else by putting more or less weight on top of the harrows."
The trick is to harrow to an optimal depth that keeps the material from freezing, but doesn't dig up the track too much.
While a track superintendent ought to dread the onset of winter, Passero seems to welcome it. "Weather has stopped armies," he points out, and weather poses the daily challenges that he thrives on.
"To me, it's fun," Passero said, adding, "Nobody in his right mind would do this job if he didn't enjoy it."