Special Return - by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the May 19, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds An off-again, on-again love affair between the Maryland Jockey Club and its signature race for the handicap division, the Pimlico Special, has played out just north of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor for a half century now. The latest rebirth of the 13⁄16-mile Special will take place in living color May 18, the day before the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), racing’s second leg of the Triple Crown.

The Special, once a $500,000 top-tiered event, was last contested in 2008—the day before Big Brown wore the blanket of Black-Eyed Susans—so it has lost its grade I status for this year’s trip aboard the merry-go-round. With a broad stroke of equal parts brilliance and marketing savvy, the MJC has repackaged the former William Donald Schaefer Handicap (gr. III) as the Pimlico Special and kick-started the purse from $100,000 to $300,000.

The race returns to its rightful slot on the racing calendar for the handicap division, falling after Santa Anita’s Big ’Cap (gr. I) and the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) and before Churchill Downs’ Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) and the New York Racing Association’s summer heavy-hitters.

The Pimlico Special was special in racing’s golden era when horses such as Seabiscuit, Challedon, Whirlaway, and Citation stomped on the terra at Old Hilltop. The grainy newsreel footage of yesteryear continues to fade, as does the black-and-white contrasted images hanging on the wall. Its storied run came to an end after Vertex’ score in 1958, and for 30 years the starting gates remained closed on the Special.

Those days, like duotone images that first turn yellow, then light brown, are gone forever. Time has been allowed to get loose on the lead, but the race has seen some good times after it returned more than a generation ago.

The race made a glorious comeback in 1988, bringing together four from the great 3-year-old crop of 1987 to fill out the superfecta in Bet Twice, Lost Code, Cryptoclearance, and Alysheba, with local hero Little Bold John running fifth. From then to its one-year vacancy in 2002, the Special served as a May springboard to three Horse of the Year titles with wins by Criminal Type (1990), Cigar (’95), Skip Away (’98), and an additional older male Eclipse Award won by Blushing John (’89).

Include took the Special in 2001 before the race took a break. The importance of the victory wasn’t lost on Brereton Jones, who would later buy the horse to stand at his Airdrie Stud near Midway, Ky.

“Anytime you win a grade I around two turns and do it impressively, it’s helpful for a stallion’s career,” he said. “His win was important to me as to Include’s potential.”

While contested five times in a six-year span (2003-08), the race has proved to be a star machine and a Central Kentucky stallion-maker.
William Farish’s homebred Mineshaft was a 4-year-old on the upswing when he earned the first grade I victory of his career in the slop at Pimlico in the 2003 Special. Three other grade I wins would follow, as would an Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year and a career at stud at Farish’s Lane’s End Farm.

Two years later Pete Willmott’s Eddington would snag his lone grade I victory in the Special, securing a slot on the stallion roster at Claiborne Farm.

“It is a great race with a lot of history,” Willmott said. “It was terribly important to win that race. He had won on the grass and won some nice races, but that was a big step for him.”

In 2006 a horse from Argentina, via Uruguay, via Dubai that went by the name Invasor, was a 6-1 chance in a five-horse field. His 11⁄4-length win over 4-5 Wanderin Boy was the start of an unbeaten run to the Horse of the Year title culminating with a victory over Bernardini in the Breeders’ Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). He now stands at Shadwell Farm.

“It’s an important race, and it was important for Invasor,” said his trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “It’s good timing for horses to go two turns instead of the one-turn Met Mile (gr. I). It went quiet for a while, but maybe it’s time for it to come on again. It’s nice to see the Pimlico Special back up and running.”

In its last incarnation, Ro Parra’s Student Council bounded away in the 2008 Maryland Lottery Pimlico Special and into the stud barn at Parra’s Millennium Farm.

Here’s to the start of a new run. 

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