Pimlico Race Course will offer a new stakes race in the spring, which will instantly become one of the three biggest events on the Maryland racing calendar and should have national significance as well.

The Pimlico Handicap will be run at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles and will be open to 4-year-olds and up. It will offer a $500,000 purse, plus a $100,000 bonus to the winner if he was previously nominated to the Triple Crown.

No date has been set for the inaugural running, but Pimlico President Frank De Francis thought it would be scheduled May 14, the Saturday before the Preakness, "to kick off Preakness week."

The race was conceived to attract the top 3-year-olds from the previous season. Pimlico would love to attract a rematch of the 1987 Preakness battle between Alysheba and Bet Twice. The track has a good chance of doing so, not just because of the healthy purse money, but because of the position that the Pimlico Handicap will occupy on the national racing schedule.

"There was a real gap in the handicap calendar," De Francis said. "Our $600,000 purse will make this the richest distance handicap from the Santa Anita Handicap {in early March} to the Woodward {at Belmont Park in September}. We had looked at the racing schedule for hours, and we couldn't believe what we saw. There was a window just waiting to be opened."

De Francis understands all too well the importance of the timing of major races. His major attraction at Laurel, the Washington, D.C. International, was weakened by the proliferation of big-money turf races in the East at the same time of year despite significant increases in its winning purse. And Laurel's big 2-year-old stakes, the Futurity and the Selima, were reduced to second-class attractions because they fell so close to the Breeders' Cup.

For once, De Francis thinks, the national racing schedule will work to his benefit. "I'm really excited about this," he said. "I think we've hit a home run."