For the past 40 years, the sight of airborne horses at Pimlico Race Course has meant only one thing -- something bad was about to happen.
No longer. For Marylanders who love steeplechasing, today is a day long overdue. The jumpers will compete on the Pimlico turf course for the first time since 1951.
"It's a natural," said Bill Gallo Jr., racing secretary and handicapper for the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association. "The timing seemed to be right [for a return]. We are doing well as a sport, and our spring hunt program was very strong. Plus, many of the steeplechase horsemen have strong ties to this area."
Two steeplechase events have been carded as the fourth and sixth races today. The fourth race, for $20,000 claiming horses, carries a $10,000 purse. The sixth race, a handicap, is worth $20,000.
Both races will be "about" 2 1/16 miles. The horses will start at the top of the stretch of the seven-eighths grass oval, go past the finish line, then around twice more, hurdling six fences -- three on the backstretch, three in the stretch -- a total of 14 times.
The horses will be "flagged off" to the outer part of the course by fluorescent cones and flags, thereby avoiding damage to the inside portion of a turf course that, because of a lack of rain, has been very hard and fast in recent weeks.
"That's a very important factor," said Gallo. "A lot of flat trainers think we'll be tearing up the course, when in fact we'll be running on virgin turf."
Although steeplechase races have been run for many years at major East Coast tracks, including the prestigious New York tracks, the "flat" and steeplechase circuits have long had their own autonomies. Top trainers Jonathan Sheppard and Janet Elliot are household names among the jumper set, but most fans of the flat don't know them from the next steeplechaser.
Pimlico regulars probably will find peculiarities in handicapping the jump races. Many of the tracks at which the horses have
competed are obscure hunt-meet tracks without pari-mutuel betting. The horses assemble in a semi-straight line before being started by flag fall; there is no gate. The riders carry more weight (133-148 pounds for today's events) and wear their caps differently, and their straight-up style is a stark contrast to that of their smaller colleagues, who ride for speed.
The circuits join forces today, largely because "it's a good spectacle to present," said Tim Capps, Pimlico vice president for racing.
"We felt like it was a good idea," he said. "It provides something different."
It also did not hurt the steeplechase association's desire to become part of Maryland racing that Pimlico has struggled in recent months to fill cards with full fields. Today's jumping races attracted fields of nine and 10.
Whether the return of the jumpers is a one-time-only deal remains to be seen. The NSHA hopes that a regular summer stop at either Pimlico or Laurel will become part of its tour, which takes steeplechasing to Garden State Park, Delaware Park, Belmont Park, Atlantic City and Saratoga.
By many accounts, steeplechasing has experienced a revival in recent years, and the sport's attention to organization and public relations has begun to make an impact on people otherwise unfamiliar with it.
"They've really gained momentum and gradually made their way back into flat racing," said Capps.
Charles Colgan, NSHA vice president, said his organization wants "to be a part of creating new racing fans, both for steeplechasing and the track." Pimlico and the NSHA have promoted the venture with advertisements proclaiming, "Pimlico's Jumping This Weekend." So what will it take tomorrow to keep Maryland jumping in the future?
"The main barometer will be attendance," said Joe De Francis, Pimlico president. "I think it will be a success if the day comes off the way we anticipate."
"We'd like to see people out here who wouldn't otherwise come to Pimlico on a Sunday in June," Capps said. "Certainly, no one expects a boom in handle, because steeplechase racing traditionally does not draw large bettors. But we do want to see new people and to hear comments about our regulars enjoying the novelty aspect of it."