Pimlico Race Course's 2009 season is expected to open Saturday with a weather forecast of sunny skies and balmy temperatures, but even the predicted 72-degree day can't disguise the fact the storied racetrack's future is clouded by the financial uncertainty of its parent company, Magna Entertainment Corp., which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the deteriorating economics of Maryland racing.
Even before Canada-based Magna announced it was seeking protection from creditors to reorganize, the company's local arm, the Maryland Jockey Club, was in discussions with the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association to cut racing dates at Pimlico to 20 this year, down from 31 in 2008.
As always, the highlight of Pimlico's spring meet will be the $1 million Preakness on May 16. The 134th running of the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown anchors two days of racing that include 16 stakes races, including the $150,000 Black-Eyed Susan (Grade II) on May 15 and two more Grade II races on Preakness Day, the Dixie Handicap and the Allaire duPont Distaff.
The Preakness will also be marked by a change in policy prohibiting spectators from taking their own beer and other beverages into the infield. Instead, beer and soft drinks will be available at concession stands. The infield will also feature live music by ZZ Top and two other bands, and a women's beach volleyball tournament.
During the Pimlico meet, which continues through May 23, there will be five stakes races outside Preakness weekend, including two Saturday, the $50,000 Hookedonthe-feelin for 3-year-old fillies and the $50,000 Geisha for fillies and mares 3 years and up.
However, the reduced Pimlico meet is a reminder to veteran Maryland horsemen, such as trainer Dickie Small, of changing times. Small stabled his horses at Pimlico for years but now headquarters at Laurel Park since the MJC closed Pimlico to year-round operations.
"It's sort of like having the World Series without the regular season," Small said of the truncated schedule that leads to the Preakness. "Like having the [NFL] playoffs or the Stanley Cup or March Madness without all the rest of it. The racing here in Maryland just can't keep up with racing in the other states."
Maryland racing has been buffeted by a host of adverse circumstances, including competition from nearby states - Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania - where slot-machine gambling has fattened purses and siphoned off horse talent. The local horse industry is hopeful revenues from Maryland's potential slots casinos will help the state catch up in the future.
Until then, local horsemen can only bide their time and wax nostalgic about what used to be.
Small recalled when horse racing had a distinct rhythm. The season began in Florida, or locally, at the former Bowie track. Then there would be a long spring season at Pimlico. Summer meant racing in New Jersey or at smaller tracks throughout Maryland. And, in the fall, the New York tracks took center stage.
"Now, one day seems pretty much like another," said Small, who has a horse, Willem, on Saturday's opening-day card, in the fourth race.
Like Small, trainer Francis Campitelli is a Pimlico veteran who now keeps his horses at Laurel.
"To ship to Pimlico and run out of the receiving barn is certainly going to be different," Campitelli said.
Campitelli will try to get used to being a visitor at the track he called home for so many years.
"The whole meet is going to be the Preakness," he said, "and that's it."
When: Saturday to May 23
(20 race dates, Thursday through Sunday)
First post 1:10 p.m., except for Kentucky Derby Day (May 2, 12:45 p.m.), Black-Eyed Susan Day (May 15, 12:15 p.m.), Preakness Day (May 16, 10:15 a.m.).
Saturday -- Opening day (Hookedonthefeelin & Geisha Stakes)
April 25 -- Henry S. Clark Stakes
May 2 -- Federico Tesio Stakes
May 15 -- Black-Eyed Susan Day (seven stakes races)
May 16 -- Preakness Day (nine stakes races)
May 23 -- Closing Day (Shine Again Stakes)