- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Laurel Park will unveil its expanded dirt track Saturday, part of a $20 million makeover that was the first for the facility since it was purchased by Magna Entertainment two years ago.

The track was widened from 75 to 92 feet, taking up half of the 90-foot apron in front of the clubhouse and grandstand. The changes were designed to provide intimacy for patrons watching along the rail and a sense of grandeur for the view down the stretch from the paddock.

Magna purchased Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, the home of the Preakness Stakes, in July 2003 and promised to improve the facilities.

However, Magna does not plan to make major renovations to the aging grandstand and clubhouse at Laurel or at Pimlico unless the Maryland legislature approves a measure that would allow slot machines at tracks in the state.

Magna chose instead to improve the track at Laurel in hopes of luring horses from nearby states. Bigger fields would mean more wagering, providing a trickle-down economic effect for the 20,000 jobs in Maryland racing.

The complete resurfacing was the first since the track’s founding in 1911 and required the movement of 500,000 cubic yards of dirt around the 11/8-mile oval over the past six months.

The 20,000 cubic tons of dirt at the track were combined with another 20,000 cubic tons from New Jersey and 25,000 tons of sand placed atop 71,000 tons of limestone.

The mix of soil and sand gives the track a soft feel rather than a concrete firmness that can cause career-ending injuries to horses.

If the track is good, horses stay healthy, trainers remain happy and bettors throw down more money with confidence. If the track goes bad, horses get hurt, races are canceled and handicappers go elsewhere.

So far, horsemen say their charges “bounce” over the track.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” said Gregg McCarron, a former jockey who works his six horses over the track. “It was in perfect shape. It’s much more refreshing.”

Said trainer Carlos Garcia: “It’s like Belmont Park or better. There’s a lot of bounce to it. The horses come back in good shape. The question mark is how it withstands the pressure of snow or rain.”

The turns now are slightly lower to create “Hadry Hill” on the backstretch for workers watching races, and there’s a new paddock entrance on the clubhouse turn for horses no longer needing to cross through the crowd.

The entire track was moved 70 feet east, but the finish line remained in the same place. The reconfigured track won’t permit 11/16 mile races anymore. Instead, 11/8 miles will be the standard test.

The condition of the turf course was the catalyst for the renovation. The dirt track would have lasted a few more years, but Magna officials decided to redo both when the grass course wore out last summer.

Races take place at Laurel from August to April, so a sturdier turf course that would last into December was needed.

The grass course, which will open in August, will be doubled in width to 142 feet. That should create enough options to permit five grass races each day. Laurel again is considering staging a turf festival, once the track’s signature event, in November.

The increased turf racing, always popular among bettors, also could impact the state’s breeding industry. It might take five years to produce the increased number of turf runners, but stallions can be imported.

“I could see a niche for it,” Country Life Farm manager Mike Pons said. “Really nice turf horses and purses go together like peanut butter and jelly. But without the purse increase, we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

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