In the past, the amount of rain that has fallen at Laurel Park in October would have swamped the turf course and knocked out grass racing possibly for the remainder of the year.
"Just the threat of rain used to close the turf course," quipped Mike Gathagan, the track's vice president of communications, after yesterday's $85,000 Japan Racing Association Stakes on the grass.
The huge 75-by-142-foot turf course that opened at Laurel in August, however, has changed the racing markedly at the track. Despite two grass races early in the card being moved to the dirt, the Japan Racing Association Stakes remained on the soft turf course, labeled "Good," and not one of the 14 entered runners scratched out of the race.
With a patient and expert ride by jockey Jose Velez Jr., New Jersey-based Spring House eased off the rail turning for home, went five wide in the stretch and rallied from last to first to draw off and win the 11/16-mile race for 3-year-olds by a length.
The homebred gelding, who finished sixth earlier this summer in the Grade III Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs, won in a time of 1 minute 44.28 seconds for trainer John Hennig and owner R.D. Hubbard.
Since the victor came from out of town, Hennig and Velez were the only connections to attend the winner's circle ceremony, but Laurel Chief Operating Officer Lou Raffetto sounded thrilled talking about the ability of the track to handle a turf race despite significant rainfall.
"Even though there were six-tenths of an inch of rain since yesterday, [turf superintendent Robbie Mitten] knew it was still dry on the inside," Raffetto said. "He was the architect of this course. He has sensors inside the course monitoring moisture content."
Velez returned from the race caked head to toe in mud. Hennig, whose son, Mark, and son-in-law Kiaran McLaughlin are top trainers, had instructed the rider to stay outside in the clear but had no idea Spring House would have to launch his move from last place.
Hennig, 61, recalled bringing allowance horses to Laurel in the early 1970s, and he clearly relished returning for the victory. He trains just 12 horses and had won only eight races this year. Watching the replay on the infield monitor, he couldn't contain his excitement.
"Oh, you're looking good jock!" he said to Velez.
Racing Notes: Jim McAlpine, president of Magna Entertainment when the Aurora, Ontario-based racetrack company bought Laurel Park and Pimlico in 2002, has retired from the company. Amid severe financial losses by Magna, McAlpine was replaced in March as president and CEO by Tom Hodgson and made a vice chairman of corporate development. A news release said he will remain as a "strategic adviser" to the company.