The day was billed as the triumphant return of Funny Cide to Pimlico but wound up the coronation of a new racing star in Southern Image.
Trainer Barclay Tagg announced late Thursday, after extensive promotion of his horse, that the weather was too warm in Maryland for Funny Cide to run and scratched the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner from Friday's Grade I $500,000 Pimlico Special.
"I can't help it if we're having a heat wave," Tagg told the Blood-Horse, an industry publication. Post-time temperature was 86 degrees.
Tagg's loss was trainer Michael Machowsky's gain as Southern Image took advantage of the absence of the morning-line favorite and powered to a 1 1/4-length victory over a short but deep field in the 13/16th-mile race for older horses.
Southern Image wasn't exactly a surprise package in the race, having won two $1 million races this year and the Grade I Malibu Stakes last December, but the high-strung 4-year-old colt had never raced outside of California and only once away from his home track, Santa Anita Park.
"All we can do is go out and win races," said Tom Kagele, an owner in the partnership behind Southern Image, with a bough of Black-Eyed Susans around his neck. "Funny Cide was scratched, but we think [Southern Image is] the best horse in the world. All we can do is let you know where we're going to be [running], and you can come and beat us."
The running of the historic Pimlico Special, which has been won by great horses such as War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Citation and Cigar, spotlighted a bountiful 12-race card with five stakes on the eve of the Preakness that attracted a crowd of 24,271.
Even with two track records broken in turf races, no performance in any of the other races matched that of Southern Image, who won in a blazing time of 1 minute 55.89 seconds on a deep track listed as fast.
With Funny Cide out, Southern Image figured to make the pace in a field of stretch runners that included the highly touted Dynever, who went off as the favorite, and veteran stars Bowman's Band and Evening Attire.
Instead, Midway Road, second in the Preakness last year and coming off a spectacular victory in a stakes race at Keeneland, took the initiative under rider Robby Albarado.
Southern Image ran easily off of Midway Road's right flank, under a snug hold by jockey Victor Espinoza, through the first half-mile in an easy 47.53 seconds. The pace quickened sharply from there as Albarado opened up and tried to steal the race.
Dynever, three wide on the first turn, attempted to circle on the outside on the far turn but made little impact as Southern Image engaged Midway Road in a stretch duel before pulling away to win.
"He is a hell of a horse," said Midway Road's trainer Neil Howard. "He was trying to come back at the end so hard, but he just couldn't get there. It would have been a hell of an accomplishment for him to win this race because these Grade I's are so hard to win."
The team behind Southern Image arrived in Maryland with extreme confidence, which was only enhanced by the defection of Funny Cide. The horse appeared fractious and wound up during saddling in the infield, but ran with consummate professionalism once the gate opened.
Machowsky, who said Southern Image's long-term objective would be the Breeders' Cup Class this fall, figured his horse now ranks among the three best runners in the country, along with Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro.
"He's still going forward, and I don't think we've hit the bottom of him yet," Machowsky said.