Laurel turf course needs a little more time before it opens

Monday, May 13, 2024

Cool, wet and cloudy conditions have slowed grass growth and led the Maryland Jockey Club to push back the opening of the Laurel Park turf course by one week. The first entries were to be taken for Friday, April 12, but the target date now is Friday, April 19.

Logan Freeman, the Senior Sports Turf Consultant for the MJC who operates C6 Turf Management LLC, walked the turf course April 4 and recommended the delay. He provided the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association with details on the current situation as well as the work that had been done to prepare for the 2024 grass racing season.

“Before the 2023 turf racing season had concluded at Laurel Park last November, agronomic management practices were already taking place in preparation for the 2024 turf racing season,” Freeman said. “Only a couple of days after the end of the 2023 turf season, the turf course at Laurel Park was core aerified to relieve compaction that occurred during the racing season and to allow for oxygen and water to enter the root zone more easily over the winter months. In addition to aerification, the fertility program was adjusted toward aiding the turf in its preparation for winter and promoting root development during cooler temperatures.

“Winter is always an unknown in the Mid-Atlantic, as this year brought snow for the first time in a couple of years. The good news is that days are getting longer, and the occasional warmer day has arrived and as a result we are seeing significant green-up of the turf course as it comes out of winter dormancy. New growth has been slow to occur due to overall lower soil temperatures, mostly due to frequent cool rainy days.

“We have already begun directed spring fertility practices to help encourage growth even during these cool, wet periods. At this stage, the turf is primed and ready for growth once a few sunny, warmer days arrive. Until then, it's a slower process that requires our patience and adjusted practices.”

Freeman said the turf course at Pimlico Race Course has rebounded quite well, and he noted the reasons why it’s further along than the course at Laurel.

“(The Pimlico turf) is in wonderful shape and will be ready to perform at a high level once again for the Preakness Meet in May,” Freeman said. “One might ask why Pimlico's turf looks farther along than Laurel Park's at this time. There are a few different factors likely contributing to these differences.

“First, Pimlico was aggressively reseeded with newer varieties of Tall Fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass in the fall of 2021. Some winter benefits of these newer varieties are improved cold tolerance and earlier spring green up and recovery. Second, Laurel Park sees racing later into the fall and therefore doesn't have as much recovery time prior to entering a state of winter dormancy. This results in the turf having a little more ‘work’ to do in the spring.

“And third, temperatures at Laurel Park get colder than within the city limits of Baltimore. All these factors lead to Laurel Park being a little slower to match the condition of Pimlico's turf course in the early spring. As part of our agronomic plan for Laurel Park each year, more of the same varieties of Tall Fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass within Pimlico's turf course are seeded into the turf course at Laurel Park.”

Laurel Park in 2023 was able to host 273 turf races, the most since 2019 and the highest number among all racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic region. The figure was 18.6% higher than the 230 grass races conducted in 2022 at Laurel, where a number of protocols and structural improvements over the last few years have reaped dividends. The course is 142 feet wide, and the ability to move portable rails out 17, 35, 53, 70 and 87 feet allows for six different running lanes. Combined with the 72 grass races at Pimlico, Maryland owners and trainers had access to 345 turf events in 2023.

Freeman credited the MJC turf team for the quality of work completed during the winter to help improve the courses at both tracks.

“Detailed work of gate crossings, aspects of drainage, irrigation repairs, and rail height adjustments have occurred,” he said. “Each year, overall turf management practices and their impacts are assessed and altered and/or improved if needed. The turf team at MJC strives to provide a high-caliber turf racing surface and to evaluate and improve all aspects within our control whenever possible.

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