Thoroughbred racing will resume at Pimlico Race Course on Thursday afternoon with a nine-race card to kick off the track's 35-day spring meeting.
The schedule will be highlighted by the 139th Preakness Stakes, with a richer purse of $1.5 million, up from $1 million in 2013.
Pimlico will host racing Thursday through Sunday until the May 17 Preakness and Friday through Sunday between the Preakness and the June 7 Belmont Stakes in New York. The Pimlico schedule will include 25 stakes races with purses totaling about $4.7 million.
When patrons go to the track, they'll be greeted by a refurbished turf course, which Maryland Jockey Club officials hope will generate greater revenue.
"We are excited to use the new and improved turf course on opening day and throughout the meet," said Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas. "Grass racing usually means larger fields and improved handle."
Thursday's card will feature two turf races, and track officials said they hope to run as many as 14 races on grass over each Thursday-Sunday stretch.
Workers graded and re-sodded 3-1/2 acres of the turf course at the end of last summer. And the track's turf superintendent, Robbie Mitten, said the expanse held up well through a cold, snowy winter.
"I just walked it this morning and it was perfect," he said Tuesday.
Mitten had hoped temperatures would warm to normal levels a few weeks earlier. But he said the only impact of the lingering cold was aesthetic.
"It won't impact the racing, because we had a good stand of grass going into the winter," he said. "It just doesn't look pleasing."
Mitten said the work, which included laying 15 truckloads of sod, was the most extensive he's seen on the turf course in 25 years at Pimlico. He hopes to supervise similar improvements to the remainder of the course's 8 acres after racing ends in June.
The track will offer free admission Thursday, with first post at 1:10 p.m. Saturday's card will feature barbecue and a souvenir cup giveaway, which will enable patrons to buy discount beer for the rest of the 35-day run (excluding Preakness weekend).
Other planned events include a Kentucky Derby party on May 3 and a champagne brunch on Mother's Day.
In the end, of course, Preakness is the dominant event, the one that allows racing at Pimlico to turn a profit. Last year's race drew 117,203, fourth highest in history, and a gambling handle of $81.9 million, the sixth highest ever. The strong crowd helped slow an overall attendance decline at the track, which drew 294,057 in 2013 compared to 300,056 in 2012. The 2-percent drop was an improvement on the 4-percent decline from 2011 to 2012.
In addition to the race, this year's Preakness will feature Grammy winner Lorde performing in the infield.