Along with the thrill of thundering hooves returning to Pimlico Race Course today, the return of the Grade I Pimlico Special during Preakness week and a stakes schedule that the Maryland Jockey Club's new president, Chris Dragone, calls "very good," comes a sign of the ongoing struggle the sport faces to keep the best talent in the state.
Ryan Fogelsonger, 26 and the winner of more races at Pimlico and Laurel Park than any other rider since 2002, said yesterday that he has decided to move his tack to Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa.
He will ride Malibu Kid, the favorite in today's $50,000 Star de Naskra Stakes for Maryland-breds, but will say goodbye to the track Sunday to be on hand for opening day at Presque Isle on May 9.
"For the most part, as you can see, there isn't a lot of money in Maryland racing right now," Fogelsonger said. "My decision - I've been thinking about it for two or three months - has been made for the most part based on the lack of dollars in Maryland and the resulting lack of opportunities here.
"I love Maryland and it will always be my home, but I felt I had to make this decision and I'm excited about the new opportunities ahead of me."
Fogelsonger said that though he has had his share of hard falls - including one last week that bruised every vertebrae in his body - the fact that Presque Isle has a softer synthetic surface played no part in his decision.
"I decided on Presque Isle because it's new and the jockey colony there is open to everyone," he said. Fogelsonger follows in the footsteps of jockeys such as Chris McCarron, Kent Desormeaux, Ramon Dominguez and Edgar Prado, who all started here before moving on to great success in more lucrative markets.
"I think it's a compliment to Maryland racing that such good jockeys as those earned their stripes here and were able to move on," Dragone said. "I understand with our purses, jockeys can make more money in other venues, and I wish him well."
But Dragone's main focus is on Pimlico, as live racing shifts there today for an action-packed short meet that will end June 7.
Headlining the eight-week stand is, of course, the 133rd, $1 million Grade I Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, on May 17. It is one of 27 stakes that will be run for purses totaling $3.465 million.
The opening Saturday of the spring stand will include four added-money races, including the $150,000 Federico Tesio Stakes. The Tesio, which will be televised live on ESPN, has been a Preakness prep for such standouts as Deputed Testamony (1983), Oliver's Twist (1995) and Magic Weisner (2002).
The Grade I Pimlico Special is one of just three Grade I races in Maryland and returns after a one-year absence. It will be held May 16, the same day as the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan and four other added-money races.
Fogelsonger, who followed his 2002 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice with 10 riding titles and has earned more than $26 million, will be looking for career victory 1,188.
Admission is free for today's race card, which begins at 1:10 p.m.