Dirt surface, turf course at Laurel focus of meeting

The Maryland Jockey Club and horsemen Nov. 10 discussed ways to improve communication and encourage constructive feedback related to questions and general information regarding the dirt track and turf course at Laurel Park.

MJC Track Superintendent Chris Bosley and Erik Dittmar, recently named MTC Turf Superintendent, provided updates during a Zoom meeting hosted by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. The MTHA has held similar meetings in the past and plans to have them regularly given the possible impact of winter weather on the reconstructed dirt track that was first used in late August.

Bosley said the cushion of the dirt track has higher silt and clay content than the old surface, which is probably contributing to quick workout times during morning training. He said the plan was to start out with “richer material” so it would have a period topack toward the base. The surface, he said, will lose some silt and clay during the winter months, so it was best to add it at the outset.

“Still, the clay content at this point is higher than was anticipated, so we’ll be adding straight silica sand, which is 100% pure and has smaller grains,” Bosley said. “It will help break up the material a little bit, help loosen up the track and help dry it out quicker. Moisture stays underneath and the material is bonding, so we’ll introduce silica sand to break it up and probably slow down the track a bit. Silica sand is aggressive—and expensive—so we’re going to do the process really slow.”

Bosley said the maintenance crew already has added some silica sand to areas in the one-mile chute and the results have been positive. Horses, he said, are still getting ahold of the surface and the cushion is fluffing up the way it should.

The current cushion on the 1 1/8-mile track is four inches from top to base, about a half-inch deeper than it was before the conversion. The New York Racing Association and some other tracks in the region maintain a four-inch cushion as well.

“We can always adjust it if it’s better for the horses,” Bosley said. “There could be adjustments during the winter if the track is too deep and cuppy. Feedback from horsemen is going to be absolutely huge” in determining the depth and makeup of the cushion.

There was some discussion about streamlining communications so that Bosley is promptly made aware of any equine injuries or horses that may be “off” after training. Dr. Libby Daniel, the Maryland Racing Commission Equine Medical and Welfare Director, and Dr. Heidi Thomas, MJC Senior Veterinarian, will be the conduits, though horsemen and practicing veterinarians are being urged to pass on any information that can be helpful to the process.

As for the turf course at Laurel, it remains to be seen how much longer it will be in use in 2021 given a few days of heavy rain in October and subsequent frost in early November. Horsemen noted Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack in New York raced or will race on the grass through November.

“The weather put a damper on the turf itself,” said Dittmar, who has degree in turf science from Rutgers University. “It’s very hard to dry soil now to provide safe conditions. There was a lot of rain and then the temperatures dropped to about 30 degrees. That’s not a good mixture.”

There currently is no “drop-dead” date for deciding whether to stop grass racing for the season. The MJC Racing Office confirmed it does consider long-range weather forecasts when it makes decisions on how many turf races to card on a given program.

Officials acknowledged that though the turf course at Laurel is much better than it was before a project that included deep aeration began last spring, there still are some drainage issues.

“The turf course in November is not the turf course in August and September,” said Steve Koch, Vice President of Racing for The Stronach Group (1/ST RACING). “We absolutely made tremendous gains with the turf course this summer. We’re working with what we have. It’s going to continue to get better. We always want more drainage under a turf course.”

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