‘One Of The Best In The Country’: Laurel Park’s Turf Course Set For Another Summer Of Racing

Universally praised for both its consistency and versatility, Laurel Park’s world-class turf course continues to live up to its world-class reputation more than a decade after its transformation into one of the finest layouts in all of Thoroughbred racing.

Though Maryland’s first grass races of 2017 came at the tail end of Laurel’s winter-spring meet, turf racing gets into full swing with the opening of its 33-day summer stand Friday, June 9.

Once limited in its distances and plagued by poor drainage that shortened fields or caused races to be switched to the main track, Laurel’s one-mile turf course was rebuilt by the Maryland Jockey Club starting in June 2004 in part to stimulate a declining handle with a course that could withstand the weather and stress of daily racing.

Raised from an elevation of five feet to nine feet and nearly doubled in width from 75 to 142 feet with 18 acres of fresh sod, the new turf course opened on Aug. 24, 2005 to rave reviews.

Jockey Steve ‘Cowboy’ Hamilton, who returned to Maryland last summer following a 10-year retirement from competitive riding, was aboard Tim Keefe-trained maiden Lukipela, the first horse to work over the new course, when it was reopened for training.

“It’s a great course to ride. It’s got the nice, sweeping turns and it’s just like running on carpet,” Hamilton said. “Horses can be on the lead or come from the middle of the pack or from last. I don’t think there’s a big bias anywhere. I just enjoy being on a big, nice, wide-open course like that.”

Hall of Famer Edgar Prado rose to national prominence by dominating Maryland racing for nearly a decade before his departure in 1998, returning to the jockey colony last May. Now just 51 wins away from 7,000 for his lengthy career, Prado is among the biggest fans of Laurel’s turf course.

During last summer’s Laurel meet, which ran July 1 to Aug. 21, a total of 1,049 horses ran in 112 turf races – an average of 9.37 starters per race. Total purses for the 112 races from allowance to waiver claiming conditions were $3.509 million.

“Definitely, it’s one of the best in the country,” he said. “They did a good job on the turf. It holds up pretty good. We raced on it a little before we came [to Pimlico] and it should be beautiful by the time we get back. Laurel has the big, wide turns and we have six-furlong [races] on the turf. I like that and I think it’s a little easier on the horses.”

One of the most unique features of Laurel’s turf course is its many layouts. The width allows for six different configurations based on the position of the portable rail, each named for some of racing’s finest champions – All Along (hedge), Bowl Game (17 feet), Kelso (35 feet), Dahlia (52 feet), Exceller (70 feet) and Fort Marcy (87 feet).

The ability of track maintenance crews to move the rail allows racing officials to use various parts of the course and not overuse any one particular area, keeping the surface safer for horses and jockeys and effectively lengthening the turf season.

When he first came to the U.S. from England to train horses, Graham Motion made his mark with grass horses such as multiple Grade 1 winner Better Talk Now. Motion, based at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., has gone on to have many Grade 1 turf stars over the years including champion Main Sequence.

On April 22, Motion swept Laurel’s two turf stakes with Ascend in the $75,000 Henry S. Clark and Danilovna in the $75,000 Dahlia. He also won the 2015 Lady Baltimore with Interrupted.

“Honestly, for me it’s probably the fact that it’s not used [up] maybe as much as some of the other ones. The fact that they can move the rail around and keep fairly fresh ground is a big plus and they’re able to run plenty of races. That’s the most appealing thing to me,” Motion said.

“I always point my horses to Maryland and this is obviously a big factor, that we do have a good turf course to run on and a course that’s relatively fresh. It certainly does play into our kind of schedule,” he added. “We do have a lot of grass horses so it certainly works for us where we’re able to run plenty of horses there. I think one of the other big factors is that it drains so well that they can run on days where other places might not be able to run.”

A key component in the reconstruction involved the course being bulldozed and the drainage systems, bases and surfaces rebuilt. The old course rested atop a flood plain and even the slightest rainfall was often enough to cancel turf races.

Maryland Jockey Club president and general manager Sal Sinatra said Laurel works with TruGreen to create a custom blend of fescue for the turf course, while maintaining a higher blade on the grass to protect the root system, particularly with divots.

“One thing about it is, you can run on it in pretty much any kind of weather. When they designed this course they must have known what they were doing,” Laurel-based trainer Rodney Jenkins said. Among Jenkins top horses is Phlash Phelps, whose multiple grass stakes victories include back-to-back editions of the Maryland Million Turf in 2015 and 2016.

“I have to say, I’ve seen days when I would have sworn it would come off the turf and it didn’t, and I was upset. Then I come back and look and say, ‘They’re right. They don’t have to come off.’ It’s that good,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know what makes it that good, to be honest, but I’ll tell you what. It’s probably the best turf course in the country.

“It’s just consistently good. That’s what I like about it,” he added. “They can move it anywhere they want and run pretty much any distance you want. How many turf courses can you run three-quarters on other than Belmont or something like that?”

Five-time Maryland meet riding champion Horacio Karamanos, closing in on his 2,000th career victory, has enjoyed success over Laurel’s turf including the 2016 Jameela Stakes aboard Lovable Lady.

“Right now Laurel is in good shape. The turf is really good,” he said. “Last year to this year, the grass is coming better so it looks like we’re going to have a nice summer on the turf. We’ve got beautiful turf. Now it’s one of the best courses around.”

The post ‘One Of The Best In The Country’: Laurel Park’s Turf Course Set For Another Summer Of Racing appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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