Pimlico Special canceled for 2007

Jockey Club decides to keep $500,000 purse money in Maryland

January 26, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Reporter

On Monday, Invasor became the 15th winner of the Pimlico Special to capture an Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. Yesterday, the Maryland Jockey Club canceled this year's race.

The Pimlico Special, a $500,000 Grade I race, second in importance in Maryland only to the Preakness, dates to 1937, when it was created by Alfred G. Vanderbilt as the first major stakes race in America and the first one by invitation only.

The Maryland Jockey Club determined that the state's horsemen would be better served by distributing the purse money among other races because out-of-state horsemen generally win the Special.

"It's a tough pill for me to swallow," said Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Jockey Club. "To have a race like that one canceled ... it hurts not because it's a $500,000 race, but because of the prestige of running it."

Among the famed horses to win the Pimlico Special are War Admiral, who won the first race in 1937, and Seabiscuit, winner of what is probably the most famous of its 41 editions, in 1938.

That year, Seabiscuit and War Admiral dueled in a match race that was termed "The Race of the Century" by Sports Illustrated in 1999. The event was revisited in Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend and the subsequent 2003 film adaptation.

Another memorable run came in 1995, when superstar Cigar staged a great show as part of his 16-race winning streak.

"This is terribly disappointing," said Joe De Francis, chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club and executive vice president of Magna Entertainment Corp., which operates Pimlico Race Course, where the Pimlico Special has been run. "The history and tradition surrounding the Pimlico Special are absolutely priceless."

But Maryland racing is facing tough times with slot machine revenue enhancing purses in surrounding states. So track management announced the cancellation on the same day racing industry leaders appeared before a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Annapolis. During the hearing, Raffetto lamented the necessity of canceling this year's race, scheduled for the Friday before the Preakness.

"We decided something had to give," Raffetto told the committee. "The $500,000 purse, while it means a lot to the industry nationally, does not necessarily put money in the pockets of our local horsemen. It's very difficult to make that decision because it means losing one of our three Grade I races."

Raffetto said later that the race is won by out-of-state horsemen 19 out of 20 times, and with the current state of the industry, "We simply can't afford it."

Alan Foreman, attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the Special has been "a sore point" with local horsemen for years.

"It represents a large chunk of money coming out of purses that would otherwise have gone to local horsemen," he said. "I know it's an important Grade I race ... but we don't have the money."

There are 107 Grade I stakes in the country, and 96 are in New York, Southern California and Kentucky. Now, Maryland will have two - the Preakness and Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash - though the Maryland Jockey Club could restore the Pimlico Special as a Grade I race if it goes back on the schedule in 2008.

If a graded race is not run for two years, it automatically loses its graded designation. If the race is restored after that, it must run for three years before reapplying for graded designation.

The Pimlico Special was discontinued after 1958 and did not return until 1988. When it did return, through the efforts of then-Maryland Jockey Club president Frank J. De Francis, it was a handicap and produced a spectacular race in which Bet Twice beat Cryptoclearance and Alysheba.

In 2002, the race was canceled because of a purse distribution problem, but it returned in 2003, when Mineshaft made it one of his four Grade I wins on his way to Horse of the Year honors.

"I'm saddened by this," Maryland Racing Commission chairman John McDaniel said. "But it's the lesser of two evils. It's sad to lose one of our three Grade I stakes, but we have to protect our horsemen in the state.

"The question is: How can we get it back? It can come back if we move rapidly. If we get some kind of supplement [from the legislature], it could be revived. It's a race that made for a special day and brought a lot of people to the racetrack."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

`Special' horses

Eclipse Award Horse of the Year winners who won the Pimlico Special:

Year ............... Horse

1937 ................. War Admiral

1938 ............... Seabiscuit

1939 .............. Challedon

1940 .............. Challedon

1942 .............. Whirlaway

1944 .............. Twilight Tear

1946 .............. Assault

1948 ............. Citation

1949 ............. Capot

1953 ............ Tom Fool

1990 ............ Criminal Type

1995 ............ Cigar

1998 ............ Skip Away

2003 ............. Mineshaft

2006 ........... Invasor

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