Purse increases equivalent to $18,000 daily and 26 stakes races offering $4 million will highlight Maryland thoroughbred racing's signature meeting, which opens for an eight-week stand today at Pimlico Race Course.
The rises in purse money will provide a better quality of racing, enabling the state to better compete with neighboring tracks in Charles Town, W.Va., and Delaware that are being bolstered by slot revenues.
"We hope we can maintain this level, which is about 13 percent higher than last year," said Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. "Two years ago we had to cut purses and last year we had a shortfall [in the purse account] into spring."
A tremendous Preakness Day, which included a record crowd of 112,668 to see Smarty Jones romp to victory, and a cutback to four days of live racing contributed mightily to a resurgence in the purse money available.
"We accrued an underpayment of about $3 million because of fewer days and fewer races," Raffetto said. "And the Preakness always bails you out."
Increases will be made virtually across the board in races other than stakes. The raises range from $500 in six conditions -- mostly maiden events -- to a possible $5,000 in an allowance category. Under 16 different conditions, the purse will offer at least $2,000 more.
All 10 graded stakes during the meeting will be conducted Preakness week, including the $500,000 Pimlico Special on Preakness eve.
On the first Saturday, five six-figure added money races are carded for the Spring Festival of Racing. Three will feature Maryland Million nominees or Maryland-bred horses and will be sponsored by three of the state's top breeding farms, Country Life, Maryland Stallion Station and Northview Stallion Station.
The open stakes on Saturday are the $200,000 Jim McKay Breeders' Cup Handicap for older horses and the $150,000 Federico Tesio, a Triple Crown prep race.
Opening day will include free admission, a free live racing program, a selection of half-priced concession items and the first two turf races of the Maryland season. The Pimlico stand will conclude June 12 with live racing then switching to Colonial Downs in Virginia.
Raffetto said there are slightly more than 2,000 horses on the grounds at three Maryland training sites, a slight drop from last year at the same time.
Improvements at the track include a refurbished dining terrace, upgraded decor in the Jockey Club and new carpeting in the Sports Palace.
For the Preakness, luxury accommodations -- the trend in sports seating -- will be more evident. Without cutting unduly into the space granted the infield revelers, Magna Entertainment will add two more upscale "chalets" to the Preakness Village tent area and offer six sky suites on the clubhouse turn. Magna will expand the infield "turfside terrace" seating along the homestretch, include new seating under cover at the edge of the infield and sell reserved seats under a canopy on the clubhouse turn.
One disadvantage to the infield crowd: Fans will lose the majority of their view of the stretch and will have to watch the finish of races, including the Preakness, on the wide screens.
The track is selling new $18 general admission tickets, without seating, in the grandstand and clubhouse.
"We started selling for the Preakness really early," Raffetto said. "We're well ahead of where we were last year at this time."