Spring is in the air, with the traditional opening of Pimlico Race Course today for its short, eight-week meet highlighted by Saturday's Spring Festival of Racing and the May 19 Preakness Stakes.
"While I hated to see the Laurel meet end because my horses did so well there, I still think the change of venue is a good thing," said Scott Lake, who was top trainer at Laurel this winter with 49 wins. "Everyone is in a good mood. There are new sights and sounds. It picks everyone's head up, even the horses."
The meet, which begins with a 10-race card today starting at 1:10 p.m., features 27 stakes races for purses of $3.97 million. Of those, 14 will be carded during Preakness week, including nine on Preakness Day. Lou Raffetto, Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer, said what makes Pimlico special is that it is a short meet.
"Because this is a short meet, we'll be able to utilize the turf course a lot while we're here," Raffetto said.
Fans love the turf races because they attract larger fields of horses, which makes the outcome for the bettors more interesting. Last year's Pimlico spring meet showed a 5 percent increase in total wagering over the year before, despite eight fewer live racing days. The average daily handle at the track was almost $7 million, up 26 percent from 2005.
Saturday's card is highlighted as the Spring Festival of Racing, which will feature Maryland Million-nominated or Maryland-bred runners in three $125,000 stakes: The Country Life Farm (1 1/16 miles for 3-year-old fillies), the Maryland Stallion Station (six furlongs, 3-year-olds) and the Northview Stallion Station (1 1/16 miles, fillies and mares, 3-year- olds and up).
"I hope the special breeding day races have a strong impact," Lake said. "Maryland breeding was great for a long time. But the last several years, it seems there are less and less studs standing in Maryland. I hope days like this help to change that."
Racing secretary Georganne Hale is excited about the Grade II Federico Tesio Stakes on Saturday, which can lead to entry in the Preakness next month.
"You know the Tesio has Dickie Small's horse in the field, and he's a gorilla," Hale said, referring to Small's impressive 3-year-old Etude, who has developed such a strong reputation in his past three races - all wins - that Hale indicated the 1 1/8 -mile race will have only five runners.
"A double-edged sword," she said. "You want the best horses to run, but no one wants to run against that horse."
Still, there will be a lot of horses running Saturday in 11 races, with six of them stakes. Hale said she also is tracking racing news to see what horses she may be able to entice to Pimlico later in the meet.
"I saw [Tuesday] that Barclay Tagg said he wasn't going to run Showing Up at Churchill Downs, so maybe he'll run in our Dixie Stakes," she said of the Grade II race run Preakness Day. "I will call him and say, 'Hey, Barc, Don't you want to come home?' "