Laurel Park reconstruction nears completion.

Laurel Park reconstruction nears completion.

Maryland Jockey Club/Jim McCue

Horsemen's Group Critical of Delays With Laurel Project

As tensions escalated between leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and the chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, executives of the Maryland Jockey Club said Tuesday that the rebuilding of the Laurel Park dirt track was nearly complete.

Lou Raffetto Jr., MJC chief operating officer, told commissioners at their monthly meeting at Laurel that the latest estimate for resuming racing at the Laurel track was Jan. 22. He said the latest estimate for opening the track for training was Dec. 26.

Richard Hoffberger and Wayne Wright, president and executive secretary, respectively, of the horsemen's association, continued to express concern about design flaws and faulty construction that delayed completion of the dirt track and put off completion of the turf course until next year.

"It's likely this track will fall apart," Hoffberger told commissioners. "The project has been flawed from the beginning. Virtually anything that could go wrong has gone wrong."

The commission voted 4-3 in June to let the MJC and its parent company Magna Entertainment Corp. proceed with the reconstruction after executives promised that the dirt and turf surfaces would be rebuilt in time for the Maryland Million in early October. Tom McDonough, commission chairman, was one of the four who voted in favor of the project.

At the Dec. 14 meeting, Wright blamed McDonough for the "debacle," as Wright put it, of horses being stabled in tents at Pimlico, of horsemen still stabled at Laurel having no track to train on, of grooms being displaced, of fans being disgruntled, and of the loss of the prosperous Laurel fall-winter meet. Wright's pointed accusation was the continuation of a growing rift with McDonough.

Finally, McDonough said he accepted blame for not having insisted that an engineer or other expert hired by Magna oversee the project. "When I was out there the guy who was in charge was an electrician," McDonough said. However, McDonough said he did not agree with the horsemen's dire predictions for the racing surface.

After the meeting, Wright told reporters that he believed McDonough should resign from the commission. Told of Wright's comment, McDonough said he had no intention of resigning.
"I disagree with Wayne," McDonough said. "Everybody's entitled to their opinion."

Hoffberger implored commissioners to hire an outside expert familiar with winter tracks to examine the surfaces and to continue monitoring them. He said he was hesitant to take the word of Magna employees about the condition of the track.

"I don't feel it's good to have the fox guarding the hen house," Hoffberger said.

Jim Gagliano, an executive vice president at Pimlico and Laurel Park, said he welcomed an outside expert. As for Hoffberger's comment about guarding the hen house, Gagliano said: "It's not like the fox and the hen house. We're all in the same house. We recognize we may have made some past mistakes. The goal remains to build the best racetrack we can possibly build."

Problems with rebuilding the tracks have centered around the soggy ground upon which the tracks are situated. The tracks sit atop a flood plain. Magna's workers have run into trouble trying to secure the foundation so that it supports a safe and level racing surface.

Ted Malloy, a track consultant from Florida working for Magna, said that problems with the track's foundation will be resolved by this weekend and that the "cushion," the actual racing surface, will be put down next week.

"I promise you I won't leave here and give you a track that's not safe," Malloy said. "I know what a good racetrack is. I'm trying to give you the best."

In other business, the commissioners heard Harry Manley, assistant services director of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 27, which represents track workers, complain about a cutback in the tracks' security force. Manley described three robberies that had taken place recently inside Pimlico and in its parking lots. The commission agreed to take up the issue at its Jan. 11 meeting at Pimlico.