10-furlong Pimlico Special one of two stakes changes

by | May 13, 2019 | Breaking, Business, Maryland, MD Business

Irish War Cry won the 2018 Pimlico Special — the last to be contested at 1 3/16 miles? Photo by Dottie Miller.

Astute racing fans and bettors will notice a couple of changes to the Pimlico stakes schedule, which kicks off Friday (and ends Saturday).

While one of those changes – the addition of a new stake – figures to be of the greatest consequence for horsemen, it’s the other change that’ll have the public talking.

The Grade 3 Pimlico Special – one of America’s great, historic races, albeit one with a wildly checkered past – will be contested this year at 1 ¼ miles. Every previous running of the race had been at 1 3/16 miles, the same distance as the Grade 1 Preakness.

Why the change?

Field size in the Special has averaged 7.8 horses over the last five years. And in three of those five years, the favorite went off at 1.30-1 or less, with two of them being odds-on.

So looking for ways to juice interest among horsemen was warranted, Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary Chris Merz said.

“In talking to trainers, we kind of felt that [the 1 1/4 -mile distance] would hit them right in the eyeball,” Merz said. “It’s the way horsemen think; they’re aware of that classic distance.”

Merz said that in recent years, the Special – once a destination race for the nation’s best horses – had found itself betwixt and between. While the $300,000 purse isn’t chump change, it pales in comparison to the 10-figure prizes contested in the Pegasus World Cup in January at Gulfstream Park and then in the Dubai World Cup in March.

That latter race, in particular, has taken a bite out of other events, as well, such as the Santa Anita Handicap, and it often knocks horses out of racing until the summer.

The solution, Merz suggested, was to hunt a different kind of horse: the up-and-comer, rather than the established star.

“I think horsemen will want to try their horses at ten furlongs to see if they can handle it,” he explained. “I think you’re going to get a lot of up-and-coming horses to come.”

Pimlico hasn’t carded a 10-furlong race in nearly 20 years, Merz said. The track record at the distance, 2:01 4/5, was set by Manzotti in 1988 in the then-Grade 3 John B. Campbell Handicap, which was contested at that distance from 1974, at Bowie, through 1988. 

Early returns are promising. The Special has drawn a field of 14, among them a name familiar from last year’s Preakness: Tenfold, who ran a monster race to be third, beaten less than a length in the Middle Jewel, and subsequently won the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

The change to the Special is part of what Merz described as a “massive redo” of the stakes schedule that he and stakes coordinator Coley Blind have undertaken.

Another element of the redo is the addition of a new event, the $100,000 Searching Stakes that will be contested on the Preakness undercard.

The event, named for the daughter of War Admiral who won the 1955 and 1957 editions of the Gallorette Stakes at Pimlico, is for fillies and mares three and up and will be contested on the turf at a distance of 1 ½ miles.

Merz said that he and Blind had looked around the country for a void and found very few races at the distance for the distaff set.

“It’s a very unique race,” he said. “You don’t see these 1 ½ mile races too often.”

The race drew 22 nominations, and Merz said the racing office is expecting eight to 10 runners in the field.

“We’ve been very pleased with the response,” he said.

Of the seven stakes on tap for Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan day card, four have at least 10 horses entered, and two, the Special and the grassy Hilltop Stakes for sophomore fillies, have full gates.

It’s a promising beginning to Merz’s first year overseeing Preakness weekend racing, and he shares credit with what he describes as a “fantastic racing office.

“They put every ounce of energy they can into this day, and as far as I’m concerned, they’ve hit a home run,” he added. “There’s a great sense of pride here.”

Of course, what the future holds is unknown, but here’s one thing that’s pretty likely: if the distance change in the Pimlico Special remains in place in years to come, that will likely solidify Farma Way’s already-strong hold on the Pimlico track record for 1 3/16 miles. The D. Wayne Lukas trainee zipped the distance in 1:52.55 en route to winning the then-Grade 1 Pimlico Special in 1991, eclipsing the record Criminal Type had set the year before.