"This project remains very much day-to-day," Jim Gagliano, executive vice president of racing operations for the Maryland Jockey Club, told commissioners at their monthly meeting at Pimlico Race Course.
When executives of MJC and its parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp., persuaded commissioners in June to let them embark upon the project, they promised that both the dirt track and the turf course would be finished by September. After encountering construction delays, they decided to put off planting sod on the turf course until next spring, and they fell behind schedule on the dirt track.
The problems that continue to beset the project involve what will be the foundation of the tracks. The ground underneath the racing surface is wet, and workers have run into trouble trying to stabilize it. They have even had to dig up various sections and pour concrete and replace materials to establish what they hope will be a secure and lasting foundation.
When John Passero, the MJC's longtime track superintendent, resigned in May, Magna officials said their company, based in Canada, had the expertise to handle the job.
Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said yesterday that hindsight has proved that not to be the case.
"The design of this racetrack, as designed in Canada, was a Class A disaster," Hoffberger told the commissioners.
Nevertheless, Hoffberger said Gagliano, Magna's representative in Maryland, and Lou Raffetto Jr., MJC's chief operating officer, have done everything in their power to accommodate trainers and their horses during the Laurel construction.
The company has spent $1.6 million on temporary stabling, including tents at Pimlico, and related costs, Gagliano said. He said the sacrifices of horsemen have been "enormous."
Gagliano said that workers have begun installing the rail around the track, that the paddock and TV towers have been refurbished, that a tote board has been installed in the infield, that new horse paths are being constructed and that a new winner's circle has been completed. He said he hopes to open Laurel for training the second week of December.
"We'll start racing as soon as we're sure it's race-ready," he said, noting the tentative date for that remains Dec. 26.
The commission appointed a committee of four -- Alvin Akman, John Franzone, John McDaniel and Lou Ulman -- to work with horsemen and track officials to make sure the racing surface gets completed satisfactorily and to provide a contingency plan for stabling and racing if it doesn't.
Raffetto said racing could continue at Pimlico, if necessary, even though Pimlico's racing surface and grandstand and clubhouse areas are not designed for winter racing.
Even though discussion of the Laurel project dominated the meeting, the commissioners unanimously -- and with little discussion -- approved the installation of about 50 Horse Wizard betting machines at Laurel whenever the track reopens for racing.
Created by Magna at a cost of $15 million to $20 million, the Horse Wizards resemble slot machines and were designed to provide a slots-like experience while betting on horse races. Magna has installed the machines at three of its other tracks (Santa Anita Park, Lone Star Park and Golden Gate Fields). Magna officials hope the Horse Wizards will attract new customers to horse racing.