Pimlico takes its cue, opens doors for 2002

11-week meet will offer 28 stakes, with `Special' conspicuous by absence

Horse Racing

April 03, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Another opening day will take place today in Baltimore. Two days after the Orioles launched their 2002 season at Camden Yards, racing returns to Pimlico and begins its buildup to the 127th Preakness Stakes.

"There's always a great deal of excitement going back to Pimlico," said Lou Raffetto Jr., Maryland Jockey Club chief operating officer. "It's like a rite of spring."

The 11-week meet at the venerable track in Northwest Baltimore will feature 28 stakes races. Thirteen will take place in a three-day period around the $1 million Preakness, set for May 18 in its traditional spot two weeks after the Kentucky Derby.

Despite the optimism spring typically generates, Pimlico opens without one of its marquee races on the calendar and with the threat of higher purses at Delaware Park, which opens April 27.

Pimlico management and horsemen agreed to suspend the $600,000 Pimlico Special for one year because of lack of purse money. The Grade I stakes was traditionally held the week before the Preakness and attracted top older horses in the country.

Delaware Park will continue to lure Maryland horses as its purses climb ever higher with money from its enormously profitable slot machines. Trainers such as Hamilton Smith, a mainstay in Maryland since 1977, will split divisions between Maryland and Delaware.

Smith applied for stalls at Delaware Park for the first time. He plans on stabling 20 horses there and 40 to 45 at Laurel Park.

"I had two different owners tell me that if I took horses to Delaware, I could train theirs," Smith said. "And if I didn't, they'd give them to somebody else."

Raffetto said that Georganne Hale, Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary, has tweaked the condition book to make the schedule of races more appealing to local horsemen. Still, Raffetto foresees an ongoing battle to fill races in Maryland.

"Do I think it's going to be easy? No, it's never easy," Raffetto said. "April is a very difficult time to fill races at any racetrack. It's a transition month. You've got horses on the grounds that you're not utilizing - turf horses and 2-year-olds who aren't yet ready to race."

Laurel Park concluded its winter meet Saturday with a 7 percent increase in wagering compared to the year before and an increase in field sizes to 7.9 per race, up from 7.3 a year ago.

"We closed on a high note," Raffetto said. "Hopefully, we can keep it going."

NOTES: Post time at Pimlico will be 1:10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. ... The first race today is named in honor of Sheri Garcia, the exercise rider killed in a training accident last week at the track. ... Opening day will feature free admission and live-racing program as well as $1 selected food and beverage concessions. On Saturday, the first 4,000 paid admissions will receive a Pimlico tote bag.

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