Thoroughbred racing was resumed in Maryland today, 261 canceled races later than it was supposed to be.
Reds Popoli blew his bugle at 10 minutes before 1 p.m. to announce the start of the Pimlico meeting, which had been scheduled to begin March 21. But a strike by track employees at Bowie March 12 kept the ponies from running through 29 programs, until this afternoon, when 15,762 of the $2 faithful finally were able to renew their interest in The Game.
"There was only one good aspect to the strike," a member of the track veterinarian's staff volunteered. "The horses had some time off. They needed it."
King Leatherbury, one of the leading trainers in the nation, showed up in the racing secretary's office wearing a beautiful new beard. "I didn't have much else to do," he remarked.
Larry Abbundi, the racing secretary, had little trouble filling two cards in one day, for Monday and Tuesday. "Thirty-five extra horses from Jersey helped," he acknowledged. Those horses were refugees from Garden State Park, which burned to the ground late Thursday afternoon.
For the bettors, the delayed opening provided "a transfusion," according to Lee Melton of Reisterstown. "A man can go just so long without his lifeblood."
Al Akman, the union leader, had noted Thursday morning how bettors had called him repeatedly, often making the same accusation: "They say I'm costing them money," Akman said. "Apparently everybody wins at the race track."
Those fans who bet on speed on the rail today certainly enjoyed several soft touches.
"Play the 1-2-3, and 3-2-1, or anything outside them with enough speed to make the rail, and the rail will carry them the rest of the way," assured Vernon Roester of Glen Burnie.
The $25,000 Hirsch Jacobs, first of two stakes presented today, offered a case in point. Royal Ski was favored, at 3 to 10, but Iron Derby and Jeff's Try got the jump on the field and never let up. They paid $203.40 in the exacta, on the 3-6 combination.
For young Butch Lenzini, trainer of Royal Ski, the 71 1/5 seconds were tortuous.
"The horse had a lot of trouble in Florida," Lenzini admitted. "He got the virus and he kinda went sour, although he's been that way before. They almost cut (gelded) him on the farm when he was young, because of his disposition."
Royal Ski was voted the second-best 2-year-old in the nation last season, behind Seattle Slew. Before the Jacobs, Lenzini thought the colt owned by Boston Bruin goalie Gary Cheevers still had time to make the Preakness here May 21.
"The Derby's gone, but Royal Ski's worked well and, if he does well, he could make it for the second Triple Crown race," the trainer said.
Royal Ski was fifth during the early moments of the six-furlong stake for 3-year-olds. Lenzini was not worried, however, until he looked at the infield tote board, saw fractions of :23 and :45 1/5, with Royal Ski still fifth.
"That's too slow a pace for Jack (Kurtz) to be there by design," the trainer groaned.
As Iron Derby and Jeff's Try led into the stretch, Royal Ski's problems mounted. "He's been carried out to the outside fence," Lenzini noted, guilty of hyperbole.
Royal Ski closed fairly well to finish fourth, but it was not the kind of performance the trainer or the fans, who bet $1,621,364 on the day, were anticipating.
"He just tried to get out. That's the only excuse I can give him," Kurtz said.
The winning jockey was Danny Wright. Iron Derby held off Jeff's Try by a neck, in 1:11 1/5, giving Wright his fourth straight Saturday stakes success.
"We won even though Iron Derby broke poor," Wright said. "But, no, I'm not giving up my mount on Cormorant for him." Cormorant is considered second to Seattle Slew in the Kentucky Derby future book.
Ordinarily, when a colt wins an early stake for 3-year-olds, the owner and trainer begin speculating about the Derby. Not Iron Derby's owner. "We didn't nominate him to the Triple Crown because we didn't think he could go more than six furlongs," said owner Francis Scuder. "We still don't."
The day's richest race was the $57,000 Gallorette Handicap, on the turf, for fillies and mares. Those bettors who had been making money along the rail of the dirt strip now had only to shift their attention to the hedge of the turf course.
Summertime Promise popped out of the No. 1 hole in the starting gate, as the 9-to-10 favorite, and never was headed. The 5-year-old bay daughter of Nijinsky II led by a half-length, a length and a half, 2 1/2, six and nine lengths in completing the 1 1/16 miles of firm going in 1:43 3/5.
Leroy Moyers enjoyed the rocking chair ride.
"She's a light-mouthed mare," Moyers noted. "She's also one of the best I've ridden. I never had to cock my stick at her today. She's got a million-dollar rear (referring to her swishing her tail repeatedly during the race.)"
Summertime Promise paid $3.80 straight and combined with Summer Session, at 10 to 1, for a $30.60 exacta. Ken Opstein, the owner, earned a check of $37,050.
By day's end Pimlico officials were delighted to be back in business, but disappointed by the turnout and the mutuel handle following the long strike. They had hoped for a crowd of 20,000 and a $2,000,000 total in the totalisator.