The fact that winter racing is fast approaching hit Chris Merz hard Thursday morning.
Merz, a native of San Diego who became the Maryland Jockey Club's racing secretary in July, woke up to an inch of snow and a winter storm warning.
“Waking up and seeing snow? Never. Never seen that before,” Merz said. “It was cool driving in it. It kind of woke the little kid in me – this is a snow day! That part was really cool.”
Laurel's been hit with some heavy weather this fall. The racing office lost nearly 70 percent of its turf races in September, 64 percent in October, and is unlikely to run over the grass in November. Despite the loss of turf races, Laurel's handle is still up for the year and has had two $4 million days in October and its best Maryland Million Day in 11 years.
And despite Thursday's morning snowfall, Merz is optimistic about the winter.
Trainer Jeremiah Englehart has shipped to Laurel. And with a directive from management to fill the 400 barns at Pimlico this fall, Merz and the racing office have brought in horses from the stables of Ben Perkins, Bruno Tessore, Miguel Vera, Scott Lake, Justin Nixon and Manuel Ruiz.
“It's a good step, a positive direction here at Laurel,” said Merz, who added there might be some changes come the 2019 stakes schedule.
“One thing I did in August was make a trip up the East Coast to Delaware, Monmouth and New York,” he said “Horsemen said they didn't have anything to point to here because it took a while for us to put the stakes schedule together, so our main focus was getting a stakes schedule out that carried through the summer and into the fall. Right now we're working on one through October 19.
“Another big thing was creating big days, finding spots in the schedule where we're not competing with anyone on a Saturday. There's also one day in July on a Sunday we're trying to take advantage of as well when everyone is moving to Saratoga and Del Mar. We're thinking on Tesio Day (in April) to maybe making it a bonus day, similar to Preakness. We're also going to have a new stakes that day at 5 ½ furlongs on the turf.”
Merz said his move to Maryland has been “one of the best decisions I've ever made.”
“The horsemen have been great, people in general have been excellent, and [former racing secretary Georganne Hale, now VP of Racing Development] has been unbelievable. I can't say enough about Georganne. She's a legend here in Maryland, and coming to work with her each day, bouncing ideas off her, has been incredible. To know you have someone you can call and say, 'How would you handle this situation,' has been fantastic.”
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