Every spring the morning after the running of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness officials make the rounds of the Churchill Downs barns issuing personal invitations to the owners and trainers of the Derby horses to run in the Preakness Stakes.
Then Preakness officials sit back, wait and hope the owners decide to overlook the short two-week gap between the two Triple Crown races and bring their horses to Baltimore instead of sending them to another high-paying race or awaiting the Belmont Stakes, five weeks away.
This year the waiting and hoping may not be so taxing.
Friday, MI Developments, Inc., which owns Pimlico Race Course, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate Fields, announced the creation of The Preakness 5.5, a $5.5 million bonus program ($5 million to the owner, $500,000 to the trainer) that will link the MID-owned tracks and improve the probability of stronger fields at each one leading up to and including the Preakness.
To qualify for the Preakness 5.5, a horse must win either the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes or the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and then go on to win the Grade I Florida Derby. At Santa Anita, a horse must win either the Grade II Bob Lewis or the Grade II San Felipe and then win the Grade I Santa Anita Derby. And at Golden Gate, a horse must win the Grade III El Camino Real and the Santa Anita Derby.
If a horse can do that at Gulfstream and at Santa Anita and then win The Preakness, he/she wins the Preakness 5.5 bonus.
"I think as far as the Preakness, this program helps ensure the quality of our fields and helps make it a full competitive field," Pimlico president Tom Chuckas said. "It also helps create a stir for the industry starting at Gulfstream. It's pretty exciting from the public perspective to have two potential horses [from Gulfstream and Santa Anita] going for a $5.5 million bonus."
To further insure the best horses come to Baltimore for the Preakness, XpressBet, another MID property, will sponsor the XpressBet .55, a consolation prize of $550,000 ($500,000 to the owner, $50,000 to the trainer) if the Preakness winner was not eligible for the $5.5 million bonus but was a runner who finished in the top three in one of the initial qualifying races and was also among the top three in the Santa Anita or Florida derbies.
"Every track with serious stakes for 3-year-olds is going after the stars of the division," said George Haines, president of Santa Anita Park. "We're providing a major incentive to owners and trainers to make plans to run at MID tracks this coming winter and spring."
If the Preakness 5.5 bonus had been in effect in previous years, six horses from 1958 to 2001 would have won it, including Triple Crown winner Affirmed in 1978. Tim Tam (1958), Spectacular Bid (1979), Snow Chief (1986), Sunday Silence (1989) and Point Given (2001) were the others.
"The Preakness 5.5 will add another level of excitement to the 3-year-old season at Gulfstream Park," said Gulfstream general manager Steve Calabro, who said his track will increase the Grade I Florida Derby purse to $1 million, just as Santa Anita Park will for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby. "Gulfstream and Santa Anita have long and storied traditions of producing the finest 3-year-olds in the country. I expect this will produce Gulfstream's finest winter racing."
At the Maryland Jockey Club, Chuckas is confident it will also produce one of the strongest Preakness fields in decades.
"This program does a good job of utilizing the MID assets, [encourages] owners to keep their horses in training, and offers the public the opportunity to see it all culminate on a very high note at The Preakness," said Chuckas. "It's win, win, win."
On Oct. 1, The MJC will announce a filly bonus program culminating at the 2011 Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico.