Updated on 09/16/2011 7:44AM

Bottom line: Pimlico Special is special

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WASHINGTON - Except for the Preakness, the Pimlico Special is Maryland's richest, most prestigious, and most historic horse race. Won by legends such as Seabiscuit, Whirlaway and Citation, and by recent champions Cigar and Skip Away, it is an event that any racetrack would love to have as a showcase attraction.

But the organization representing Maryland's horsemen wants to do away with the Special so that its $600,000 purse money can be used to fund everyday races at Pimlico and Laurel Park. Some members of the Maryland Racing Commission agreed with the horsemen's position at a meeting last week, where the Special became the latest subject of angry contention among the sport's perpetually warring factions.

When the state last year terminated a $6.1 million subsidy of purse money, racing faced a crisis. If this money came out of the maiden, claiming, and allowance races that are the staples at any track, the lower purses would make Maryland less competitive with neighboring states. Horses would defect, the size of the fields would be reduced, and bettors would wager less money on the less attractive fare, hurting business further.

So the leaders of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association negotiated with Lou Raffetto, the chief operating officer of Pimlico and Laurel, to work out a plan. They agreed to prune the stakes schedule and to run fewer races overall; Laurel operated on a four-day-a-week schedule for part of the fall. But there is still a shortfall in purse money, and the horsemen want it to come from the Special.

"It is a luxury we can't afford this year," Wayne Wright, MTHA's executive secretary, told the commission. He asked that race be canceled for one year, but there is no guarantee that the supplement will be renewed in the future. Raffetto replied, "Once it's gone, it's not coming back."

The horsemen argue, correctly, that big races and big-name horses aren't the drawing cards they used to be. In the era of full-card simulcasting, most racing fans watch champion shows on television at the local track, so the star's flesh-and-blood presence is hardly relevant. Last year the Pimlico Special lured fewer than 7,800 people to the track. The extra business it generated did not come close to paying for the big purse.

Yet marquee attractions have a benefit transcending a simple bottom-line analysis. Raffetto understands this after running Suffolk Downs and building up the Massachusetts Handicap into a nationally important race. When Horse of the Year Cigar showed up in East Boston, it raised the prestige of Suffolk, making the track seem an important sporting venue rather than a hangout for hard-core gamblers. "People in Boston knew us as 'Sufferin' Downs,' " Raffetto said. "But the Mass Cap transformed our image."

The philosophy advocated by Maryland's horsemen has been embraced by Philadelphia Park, which puts almost all of its money into bread-and-butter races and runs few significant stakes. This strategy not only creates a dreary product - every day at Philly looks pretty much like every other day - but affects the track's national prestige. At simulcasting outlets around the country (such as those in Las Vegas), Philadelphia Park is not perceived as a major track in the way that Pimlico and Laurel are. Nothing is more important in modern racing economics than having simulcast customers treat you as a big-league product; revenue from out-of-state wagering has been Maryland's saving grace in recent years.

I would argue that the Maryland tracks already have gone much too far in paring their stakes schedules. Laurel used to run two of the most prestigious 2-year-old races in America, the Futurity and the Selima, but over the years it passively let them dwindle in importance instead of trying to find a way to capitalize on their reputations. This year Raffetto terminated them both. The state now has only three major races - the Preakness, the Special, and the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash - and it can't afford to lose another.

Although the status of the Special certainly deserves serious debate, outsiders might find it hard to understand why the subject should trigger the kind of rancor that was on display at last week's commission meeting. The reason, of course, is that the horsemen have years of accumulated resentments about the way Joe De Francis, Maryland Jockey Club's president and chief executive officer, has operated his tracks. The relations are so frayed that horsemen now automatically oppose almost anything management favors. Perhaps they should take a clear-eyed look at the current state of Maryland racing.

A year ago De Francis hired Raffetto, whose first mission was to improve the quality of the racing product. Despite the devastating loss of the purse subsidy, he has succeeded. In the last few months, the day-to-day quality of Maryland racing is better than it was with the subsidy. Betting at Laurel has increased as a result, and the increase benefits management and horsemen equally. Perhaps the horsemen might cut Raffetto a little slack and give him credit for trying to boost all of Maryland racing when he defends the Pimlico Special.

"We're trying to rekindle the image of racing here," Raffetto said. "If you drop the Pimlico Special, the credibility of the whole program takes a hit. People all over the country strive to get Grade 1 races; if we dropped a Grade 1, Maryland would be the laughingstock of the sport."

(c) 2002, The Washington Post