The eagerly anticipated presence of Cigar created an air of excitement before last year's Pimlico Special and the superhorse didn't disappoint, scoring a 2 1/4 -length victory over Devil His Due.
Today's 31st running of the Grade I, $600,000 Special has created no such stir, but it may turn out to be a more competitive event.
The field has no superstar. It is simply petite and elite.
The four in the lineup are perhaps the country's best older horses -- behind Cigar, the Horse of the Year. They are Geri and Wekiva Springs, both trained by Cigar's trainer, Bill Mott, along with top-weighted foreign entry Key of Luck, who carries an aura of mystery, and Star Standard, the potential pacesetter.
The 120 pounds assigned to Key of Luck -- 2 more than Geri and Wekiva Springs will carry -- has spurred the only pre-race controversy.
On March 27, the day Cigar won the Dubai World Cup for his 14th victory in a row, Key of Luck ran the same 1 1/4 -mile distance on the same track 7/100ths of a second faster than Cigar, winning the Dubai Duty Free under 124 pounds. That race helped persuade Pimlico racing secretary Tommy Baker to give him the highest impost.
The assignment has not been received well by the connections of the 5-year-old owned by Sheik Saeed bin Maktoum al Maktoum, whose family controls oil-rich Dubai.
Assistant trainer Neal McLaughlin said yesterday that his brother, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, is still upset about the high weight.
"But there's nothing we can do about it," said Neal. "It's a tough place to start in a handicap. I hope he'll prove the handicapper right, but where does he go [in the weights] from there?"
Kiaran McLaughlin said earlier in the week, "I couldn't believe it when I saw the weights. I was really upset and thought it was unfair, especially considering it's his first race in America."
Key of Luck has never won a group or graded stakes. He was a stakes winner in France at the age of 2, did not run at 3, then scored three victories on turf in France at 4.
He was then sent to Dubai, where he ran three times on the sand track at Nad al Sheba, winning the last two by a combined 32 lengths.
Baker told the Daily Racing Form he assigned Key of Luck the high weight because "right now, he looks like a real nice horse on paper and that's all I can go by. If I weight him lower and he runs away and hides from these horses, then I look like a fool."
Geri, who shoots for his seventh straight victory, has not lost since March 26, 1995. In his last start, he beat Wekiva Springs by 1 1/2 lengths to capture the Oaklawn Handicap on April 6.
Both horses handled the track well in gallops Thursday.
"They don't act the same," said exercise rider Judy Nicks. "Geri is usually more relaxed. He acted like he had been here before but he hadn't. Wekiva Springs has to work a little harder but he gets the job done. They both finished up like they're ready to go."
Geri is a 6-to-5 favorite on the overnight line, with Key of Luck 9-to-5, Wekiva Springs 2-to-1 and Star Standard 8-to-1.
Although the horses are not as well known as Cigar, there is no lack of name recognition among the jockeys for this race.
Gary Stevens will ride Key of Luck, unbeaten in three races on dirt. Jerry Bailey, Kentucky Derby hero and Cigar's regular rider, gets Geri for the fifth straight time. Mike Smith is to be aboard Wekiva Springs and Pat Day is named on Star Standard.
If there is an off-track, Wekiva Springs could be the betting favorite. He scored a victory in the Gulfstream Park Handicap on a wet surface two starts ago.
Pub Date: 5/11/96
What: Grade I, $600,000 handicap
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
When: Today, 5: 04 p.m. post
TV: Chs. 2, 7
PP Horse .... ..Odds
1 Key of Luck . 9-5
2 Geri .. ..... 6-5
3 Wekiva Springs 2-1
4 Star Standard 8-1