There was something special missing from last year’s Preakness weekend experience at Pimlico: The Pimlico Special (gr. I). Historically one of America’s great races for older horses, the 1 3/16-mile event was taken out of circulation last year, the Maryland Jockey Club citing limited purse funds and increased competition from neighboring gaming states.
Luckily, it’s back this year, sponsored by the Maryland Lottery. Carrying half of its’ previous $500,000 purse this time around, the Special will return to its spot on the Friday afternoon card the day before the Preakness (gr. I), sharing the bill with the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. II) for 3-year-old fillies. Previously, the Special was run on the Saturday prior to the Preakness—or the second Saturday in May.
The Special, the race that gave us the famed Seabiscuit versus War Admiral battle back in ’38, holds an important place in American racing besides just history. As the only major grade I event for the handicap division during the spring on the East Coast, its timing on the calendar makes it a significant destination.
The Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream and Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in Southern California dominate the winter, with horses then heading off to run on the Dubai World Cup program if they are good enough. Then, there is a gap until summer kicks off with the one-turn, one-mile Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont Park on Memorial Day. Following the Stephen Foster (gr. I) at Churchill Downs the weekend after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), owners and trainers have a whole host of options that spreads the division pretty thin.
As the only major older horse event on dirt that is run in conjunction with a Triple Crown race, the Special allows for some love to the older set before a national television audience. For the months during the “3-year-old season,” it is the only national exposure for the group prior to the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” series that doesn’t kick in until deep into summer.
This year is not the first time the Special has arisen from the ashes. On hiatus from 1959 through 1987, it returned with a bang in 1988, bringing together the winners from the previous year’s Triple Crown races, Alysheba and Bet Twice, along with Lost Code and older local hero Little Bold John. In a thriller, Bet Twice won a heart-pounding decision over Lost Code. Cryptoclearance was third with Alysheba finishing fourth as the 3-5 choice.
In the 1990s, Criminal Type, Skip Away, and the mighty Cigar used the Special during their championship campaigns. The Special took a breather in 2002 also, but made another comeback. The first year back, we witnessed Mineshaft winning his first grade I event on his way to Horse of the Year honors.
In the last running of the Special, in 2006, racing fans had the good fortune to meet a nice horse from South America making his United States debut: Invasor.
It’s yet to be seen if this year’s Special will unveil a champion or Horse of the Year candidate. Local icon Xchanger seems ready to join the fray, as is Grasshopper, the dark bay or brown colt who took Street Sense to a half-length in last year’s Travers (gr. I) and won this year’s Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) at Fair Grounds. We may also get to see last year’s Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Student Council, Gottcha Gold, Ryan’s For Real, and Sir Whimsey, among others.
Regardless of the outcome, it’ll be Special.