Over his 46 years racing horses, King Leatherbury, the third-leading trainer of all time with more than 6,000 victories, hasn't bothered too much with turf runners.
"When winter comes, there is no turf," said Leatherbury, 72, reasoning he was better off with a stable of horses he could race year round.
As an unreserved horseplayer, however, Leatherbury sees the new grass course at Laurel Park as a boon, a chance to liven up the action at what in recent years had largely become a dreary showcase for mundane race cards.
"It's better for the bettors," said Leatherbury, who plans to spend his afternoons handicapping in the private Kelso Room at the track. "The fields are larger, and you get much more value. A lot of my associates I bet with won't even bet Maryland because of the short fields. There hasn't been any value there."
The Maryland Jockey Club opens its primary track today for a 78-day fall meet, and racing fans, at least initially, will see a Laurel Park far different than the one to which they had become accustomed, with full fields and a heavy emphasis on grass racing. A new, elevated 75 by 142 foot turf course originally scheduled to open last fall finally is ready, and four turf races are scheduled for the opening-day card.
Response from horsemen has been immediate and overwhelming. The first three days of drawn entries attracted field sizes of more than 10 horses per race, with that figure climbing to 12.4 for the turf races.
Indeed, the primary reason for building the new turf course -- part of a larger $24 million racing surface reconstruction project -- was to stimulate a steadily declining wagering handle with a course that could withstand the rigors of steady racing and drain far better than the prior one, which rested atop a flood plain.
Laurel Park and Pimlico accepted a combined $113.4 million in live wagers in 2000, but the handle has been plummeting, to $73.2 million in 2003 and $65.3 million last year when Laurel Park was partially closed to begin renovations.
Out-of-state horseplayers have propped up Maryland racing, betting $425.8 million in 2003, but that figure, too, dipped last year, to $419.9 million.
"We're ready to go," said Laurel Park Chief Operating Officer Lou Raffetto. "The opening first three days are excellent cards, full fields for the most part. We're anxious to try out the turf course. I really think people will embrace our racing better than they have in awhile."
The Laurel Park fall meet holds some of the most important days on the state's racing calendar, including the 20th Maryland Million on Oct. 8 and the Fall Festival of Racing on Nov. 19, which features the Grade I $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, one of the top sprint races in the country.
Leatherbury said he has begun to look for potential turf runners to claim to fill out his stable and compete in the new era at Laurel. While fields are full the first few days of the meet, trainers have noticed that some of the scheduled cheaper dirt races, which many of them rely on, have not filled.
"On the first four days of entries, I put nine horses in for my dad and he got one in. They're not using the races," said John Salzman Jr., a jockeys agent who also helps out his father, trainer John Salzman Sr. "I'm rooting for Maryland racing more than anybody. We've lived here all our lives. Is the turf going to be a big help? Yes. But help the guys here? I don't know."