A little country music, a big helping of sunshine and a couple of hard-charging fillies ushered in the Pimlico Race Course season Saturday.
Blind Date, a 3-year-old filly who was in eighth place at one point in the $50,000 Hookedonthefeelin Stakes, came flying from the outside in the stretch to dash to a 1 3/4 -length victory for her third win in four outings. And after a "halftime" concert by country singer Darryl Worley, Princess Nyla, a 4-year-old filly, bolted in front at the top of the stretch to post a 4 3/4 -length win for local trainer Chris Grove in the 1 1/6 -mile, $50,000 Geisha Stakes.
With temperatures in the mid-70s, nearly 8,700 spectators showed up for the start of what will be just a 20-date season at Old Hilltop with the 134th running of the Preakness being held May 16.
Joe Ferguson, 78, of East Baltimore used the opening of the track as an occasion to dress up in a gray pinstriped suit, gray alligator-style shoes and matching chocolate tie and breast-pocket handkerchief.
"I enjoy opening day here. Good food, nice company," said Ferguson, who has been attending Pimlico races for 25 years and has friends associated with the horse business. "I just love racing."
Blind Date, who was ridden by Jeremy Rose and paid $6.80 to win, covered the five furlongs over turf in 1 minute, 0.78 of a second, outsprinting eight other starters. The filly had run in the Maryland Million seven-furlong Lassie sprint last fall and finished third. Rose said Saturday's short distance was his only concern.
"She's just one of those horses that doesn't have a lot of early speed, but she runs them down late," Rose said. "In some of these races, the speed just gets out there and doesn't come back, but she's just better than everybody else."
Onearmedbandit, with Eric Camacho riding, finished second, and Next Big Nothin', with Erick Rodriguez aboard, was third.
For Grove, Princess Nyla's triumph was the fourth time the Bowie-based trainer has won the Geisha Stakes; twice Lexi Star was his winner. On Saturday, Princess Nyla outran a short field that included just four other starters in 1:45.43 paying $8.60. She outgalloped the favorite, All Smiles, when the two made their moves coming out of the far turn. All Smiles, with Rose riding, was carrying 6 more pounds than the rest of the field.
"I told [jockey] Julian [Pimentel] in the paddock, 'Look, put her in front at the head of the lane and let fate take her from there,' and he rode a perfect race," Grove said. "He put her right in front the way I asked him turning for home, and she just kept going."
Church Bells, with Camacho in the irons, was third.
Note: : The total wagering handle for the recently completed winter meet at Laurel Park (Jan. 1-April 11) suffered a 25.5 percent drop from the previous year, the Maryland Jockey Club announced. This year's total from all wagering sources was $164 million, down from $220 million in 2008. There was one fewer live racing date and one fewer simulcast date this year.