After lying dormant for decades, steeplechasing is on the rebound.
Pimlico announced yesterday that it will card its first jumping race in nearly 40 years.
Almost simultaneously, Fair Hill Race Course, the state's lone steeplechase track that takes pari-mutuel bets and is located near Elkton, released its Memorial Day card.
Eight of the nine Fair Hill races drew full 12-horse fields. And the other race, the featured $25,000 Miles Valentine Novice Stakes, drew 10 jumpers.
The increasing popularity of the sport can be attributed partly to economics. It is simply less costly to keep a jumper in training. And there is now more purse money available than there has been in years.
It used to be timber horses ran solely for cups. A good one can now earn $50,000 to $60,000 in one campaign.
Fair Hill ends the spring hunt meet season, which started about 2 1/2 months ago in Aiken, S.C. Previously jumpers were rested until fall and just the good ones ran at Saratoga.
To fill the void during the summer, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association started carding races at flat tracks. This was made possible after the organization began using portable hurdles filled with artificial brush.
That is where Pimlico fits in for the first time.
On Sunday, June 16, Pimlico will card two races on its turf course. The portable hurdles can be easily installed and removed.
Other tracks carding jump races from the end of May through July are Garden State Park, Belmont Park, Atlantic City Race Course and Delaware Park. Steeplechasing then moves to Saratoga for the month of August. The fall hunt meet schedule resumes at Fair Hill on Labor Day, Sept. 2.
Among the Memorial Day favorites at Fair Hill in the featured Valentine Novice Stakes are Nobelist and Christoroberto. Both horses were good allowance winners on the flat at Pimlico. Now converted to steeplechasing, they appear to have a future in stakes company over jumps.
Memorial Day weekend will be a busy one at area tracks. Pimlico runs the Roman Handicap tomorrow and the Jacob France Handicap on Monday.
The track also is simulcasting all of the major East Coast stakes. On Saturday, the Acorn Stakes, featuring Meadow Star, is simulcast from Belmont Park. On Sunday, Belmont Stakes eligibles Scan, Quintana and Lost Mountain compete in the Peter Pan Stakes.
Then on Monday, Housebuster is the heavy favorite in the Metropolitan Mile, and Sea Cadet, the Kentucky Derby pace-setter, takes on Subordinated Debt in the Jersey Derby.
Six of Fair Hill's nine races are for jumpers. The course is about an hour's drive from Baltimore. To get there, take 95 North to Exit 100. Then take Route 272 North to Rising Sun. Turn right onto Route 273, which goes directly to the course. For further information, phone 301/398-6565.