As the attention of the racing community remains mostly fixed on Annapolis and the fate of slot machine legislation, historic Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore opens today for its 133rd season.
While the Grade I $1 million Preakness Stakes, the second leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, casts a vast shadow over the entire spring meet, other story lines could prove fascinating.
The Maryland Jockey Club has revived its other marquee event, the Grade I Pimlico Special for older horses, after a year's banishment at the insistence of horsemen, who said the race's $750,000 purse should instead be used to prop up bread-and-butter races, which had lost their state subsidy.
The Special, won by such legendary runners as Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Citation and Cigar, will be run with a still-sizable $600,000 purse and moved from the Saturday prior to the Preakness to the day before May 16, Black-Eyed Susan Day.
The addition of the Special places Preakness week among the most important in the country, with 10 graded stakes races, including the Grade I Joe Aitcheson Stakes, the second leg of the steeplechase Triple Crown, as well as the Grade II Dixie for turf runners and the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan for 3-year-old fillies.
"I think we have a chance for a record Friday and hopefully another record Preakness," said track chief operating officer Lou Raffetto. "Everybody is sitting back and waiting for legislation, but we have to go about our business."
Already, Raffetto has held conversations with trainers Robert Frankel and Bob Baffert about a possible matchup in the Special between Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree, the two top older horses in the country. Both trainers are likely to already be on the Pimlico grounds with Preakness contenders.
Outside the Preakness and Pimlico Special, last year's darling, Magic Weisner, might generate more drama and interest than any other horse at the meet. Bred, owned and trained by Laurel Park-based Nancy Alberts, Magic Weisner electrified the racing world last spring by coming from far back to nearly topple Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem in the Preakness at odds of 45-1.
Birthed by a mare that cost Alberts one dollar, Magic Weisner became one of the most popular horses in the country before contracting West Nile Virus and nearly dying in September.
The virus killed two other Maryland racehorses, but after months of recovery, Magic Weisner is back in steady training. Despite a string of uninspiring workouts, Alberts is pointing for him to return in the $100,000 Jennings Handicap on June 7, closing day of the meet.
"He thinks he's King Kong," Alberts said of Magic Weisner's disposition. "He's very happy."
Alberts said the muscle atrophy in Magic Weisner's hind quarters lingers, but he is improving. "I have enough time [to get ready for the Jennings] if he gets himself together," she said.
The Pimlico meet will have to contend with fierce competition for horses, jockeys and fans from slots-fueled Delaware Park, just up I-95, which opens April 26.
Half of the top 10 riders from the recent Laurel Park winter meet -- Ramon Dominguez, Horatio Karamanos, Clinton Potts, Jeremy Rose and Oliver Castillo -- plan to take their tack to Delaware this spring.
Raffetto estimates 2,300 horses are based at Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center, and he said he expects the trainers to do the majority of their racing at home.
"If they don't, they won't be a part of it," if slots are approved, Raffetto said. "That's not a threat, it's just a fact."
Leading jockey Ryan Fogelsonger, the 2002 Eclipse Award-winning apprentice rider, plans to race at Pimlico. He finished the winter meet with 93 victories, 19 ahead of runner-up Dominguez.
Leading owner Michael Gill, who dominated the winter meet with 29 winners, will have 100 stalls at Laurel and Bowie this spring, even though Delaware Park, Aqueduct, Monmouth Park, Calder and Philadelphia Park all reportedly plan to deny him space.
Gill and his trainer, Mark Shuman, who broke the record for most wins at the ongoing Gulfstream Park meet in Florida, both have been under relentless scrutiny by racing officials. Both have been suspended in the past for medical violations, as have their veterinarians. Shuman and another Gill trainer, John "Jerry" Robb, recently served suspensions in Maryland for illegal drug positives in their horses.
Racing Note: Pimlico has received approval to offer head-to-head wagers on 11 stakes races on Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness days. The wagers allow bettors to select one horse to finish ahead of another, regardless of who wins the race.