The 34-day Colonial Downs race meet wrapped up Monday, and many Maryland horsemen are relieved to no longer have to navigate the agonizing traffic delays on the long, hot 4 1/2-hour drive down Interstate 95 to New Kent County, Va.
Pimlico in Baltimore opens today for a five-week summer meet, and despite severe economic struggles within the state racing industry, there are signs of optimism.
"I am so sick of Virginia," said trainer Robin Graham, who was forced to temporarily abandon her Laurel Park barn during that track's renovations and now has 26 horses at Pimlico. "In one day, I had horses [running] in three different states -- Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey -- and none is my home. We all are so glad to be back."
Indeed, with Laurel closed, Pimlico barns are packed. "I would say over 700 horses [are on the grounds]," said racing secretary Georganne Hale. "I couldn't get any more in if I wanted to."
Timonium barns, at least until horsemen are forced out for the September auctions, also are filled with racehorses. So, too, is the Bowie Training Center.
With Charles Town Races in West Virginia shut down from Aug. 2 to 25 for track resurfacing and other upgrades, Pimlico could find itself with even more horses trickling in and the prospect of full, bettable fields for racing fans.
"I remember last year, the first couple days [after the Colonial Downs meet ended] was like pulling teeth," Hale said. "The horses were racing at Delaware or worn out from Colonial. This year, it was nice to see [the trainers] saved some horses for me."
What's more, after five weeks of racing at Colonial and nothing but simulcast wagering at its facilities, the Maryland Jockey Club has amassed a purse budget surplus of more than $4 million that should eliminate the possibility of cuts to prize money or the stakes schedule for the remainder of the year, Hale said.
Still, the Pimlico meet will not pass without some discomfort. Full barns mean full living quarters for track workers, and some grooms and hot walkers not based at Pimlico are being forced to shuttle back and forth to Laurel or even sleep on the floor in the rooms of others, trainer Hamilton Smith said.
"The barn area and racetrack are in good shape, but commuting back and forth -- that's the big thing," Smith said. "There's no rooms for your help."
Colonial Downs lost 13 days of turf racing during its meet to rainy weather, and there should be a pent-up demand for Pimlico's lawn. The track will open today with the $100,000 Twixt Stakes for Maryland-bred 3-year-old fillies on the dirt, then offer three turf stakes races on the remaining three Saturdays of the meet.
Live racing will be offered Thursday through Sunday with post time at 1:10 p.m.
Racing Notes: Laurel Park's new turf course will not be ready in time for the 19th running of the Maryland Million on Oct. 9, forcing the MJC and Maryland Million officials to transfer the prestigious event to Pimlico. . . . John Passero, considered one of the top racing surface superintendents in the country, officially ended his affiliation with the MJC yesterday, accepting a severance package after 18 years of service. Passero, 62, of Sykesville, said he signed a confidentiality agreement with the MJC and would not discuss the reasons for his departure.