Not So Special
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Evan Hammonds

During this year’s Preakness weekend at Pimlico, the “Magna Entertainment Experience” surrounding the second jewel of the Triple Crown will not be nearly as enriching. On Jan. 25, the Maryland Jockey Club stuck a fork in the Pimlico Special (gr. I) for 2007.

Citing limited purse funds and increased competition from neighboring gaming states, including Pennsylvania, the newest slot-machine player in the region, MJC officials have opted to keep their overnight purses available for their local horsemen. Canning the second-most important race in Maryland saves the stakes fund $500,000, but robs racing fans in Maryland of their lone chance to see the best in the handicap division and rips a big hole in the racing calendar.

This isn’t the first time the Special has proven to be not so special; it was on hiatus from 1959 to its grand revival in 1988. And, facing a similar purse situation in 2002, the MJC sent the Special to the showers. The good news is it has enjoyed as many comebacks as Pat Valenzuela. Let’s hope history repeats itself.

As the only major handicap division race run during the Triple Crown season, the Special holds a prominent place on the racing calendar. In the older horse division, the winter is owned by the Donn Handicap (gr. I), Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), and Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). During the late summer and fall, the division is overrun with over-priced options. The Special is a destination as the only major handicap race in a two-month window from the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) in mid-April to Churchill’s Stephen Foster (gr. I) in mid-June.

Since the MJC moved the Special from the Saturday before the Preakness (gr. I) to sharing the Preakness Eve bill with the Black-Eyed Susan (gr. II), it offered something neither the Kentucky Derby nor Belmont weekend has: a true, championship-defining stakes for older horses on the main track.
Even those with short-term memory loss can’t forget that two of the last four Horses of the Year have made an important imprint in the Special. In 2003, Mineshaft earned an all-important initial grade I victory in the Special and the win was the colt’s cornerstone to his Horse of the Year campaign. Less than nine months ago, Invasor showed the world what he was made of during a gritty victory at Old Hilltop. It’s debatable if he would have been named Horse of the Year last week without that grade I score.

The Special was really special back in the ’30s and ’40s. One of the most famous races of all time was Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral in the ’38 Special. Triple Crown winners Whirl-away, Assault, and Citation made the Special special in the ’40s. The race’s status waned in the ’50s and was mothballed after Vertex won the 1958 running, which was worth $35,000 to the winner.

Revived in 1988, it came back with a race that was one of the best of the decade—the winners from the previous year’s Triple Crown races, plus Lost Code and older local hero Little Bold John went toe-to-toe, with Belmont (gr. I) winner Bet Twice winning a heart-thumper over Lost Code. Cryptoclearance was third, and the Derby (gr. I) and Preakness winner Alysheba fourth as the 3-5 favorite. Since then, the Special has proven to be pivotal for the Horse of the Year runs of Criminal Type, Cigar, and Skip Away in the 1990s.

One of the slot “haves” of the region competing with Maryland is neighbor Delaware Park, which has a robust stakes schedule. Back in the pre-slot days of the early 1980s, anemic business meant Delaware Park officials “could not see economic justification for trying to produce class racing in the future,” and they closed their doors. Their signature race, the Delaware Handicap, was moved to upstate New York and run during the Saratoga meeting from 1983-85 in part to preserve its grade I status and satisfy the need on the calendar for a top-level race for distaffers.

There’s a dose of irony that with slot machines being a permanent part of the atmosphere now at Delaware Park, the purse of the Del ’Cap has been boosted to $1 million.

If the Special can’t continue at Pimlico, perhaps there is another home for it, or business will improve to allow the MJC to revive it. The fans, and the industry, can’t afford to lose the experience.

(Evan Hammonds is Managing Editor of The Blood-Horse)

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