04/14/2008 11:00PM

27 stakes packed into seven-week meet

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The 2008 spring meet at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore begins on Thursday with Maryland horse racing officials hopeful that this year will mark the beginning of the end of troubling times for the state's racing industry.

The Pimlico meet, which runs until June 7, is the richest in Maryland, with 27 stakes races scheduled to distribute $3.47 million in purses, including the $1 million purse of the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, scheduled for May 17. The Preakness typically brings attention to Maryland's racing industry, and for the past several years, aside from the race itself, that attention has focused on the complaints of racetracks, breeders, owners, and trainers who blame the decline of the local industry on the slot-machine fueled purses in neighboring states.

However, in November, voters in Maryland will be asked to approve a referendum that would likely allow slot machines at Pimlico's sister track, Laurel Park, which is owned by the struggling Magna Entertainment Corp. Although revenue splits for the machines are not allocated in the referendum, horse racing participants are hopeful that tracks and horsemen will get a fat slice to fix up the aging facilities and boost purses.

In a nod to the optimism surrounding the vote, Pimlico this year reinstated the Grade 1 Pimlico Special for older horses after a one-year hiatus. The purse of the Special - which would have lost its grade if it was not run for two consecutive years - was cut from $500,000 to $250,000, and is scheduled for May 16 as part of a 13-race card with five other stakes races. Also on the card is the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

Live racing will be conducted on a Thursday through Sunday schedule. Post time each racing day for the 31-day meet is scheduled for 1:10 p.m. Eastern, with earlier post times on May 17 (10:30 a.m.), the day of the Preakness; May 16 (12:15 p.m.), the day of the Pimlico Special; May 3 (12:45 p.m.), when the Kentucky Derby will be held; and June 7 (12:45 p.m.), the day of the Belmont Stakes in New York.

The opening weekend will include the running of the $150,000 Federico Tesio Stakes on Saturday. The Tesio has sometimes served as a late prep for the Kentucky Derby or a springboard to the Preakness.

The track will not charge for admission on opening day and will give customers free programs. Thursday's card includes the $50,000 Star de Naskra Stakes for Maryland-bred 3-year-olds. The seven-horse field is led by Malibu Kid, who faced open stakes company in his last two starts and cuts back from a mile to six furlongs.