05/13/2003 11:00PM

Day-before-Preakness card something special


BALTIMORE, Md. - There was a time, and not so long ago, when Preakness Day crowds averaged 35,000 to 40,000. Skillful marketing and management techniques were instrumental in building the average to its present level of more than 100,000.

The Pimlico people are now focusing on a similar effort designed to make a weekend of the Preakness Experience by enhancing the Friday programs. Proceeding on the basis that good racing is good business, they revived the $600,000 Pimlico Special with its glorious history, and have made it the keystone of an outstanding card that includes the $200,000 Black-Eyed Susan for 3-year-old fillies, the $150,000 Pimlico Distaff for fillies and mares, the $100,000 Joe Aitcheson Steeplechase, and other competitive features.

The day-before-Preakness crowds have been averaging about 15,000. The Pimlico team feels that with the cooperation of the weatherman that figure can be topped, and it may have a gate attraction that will help in the Pimlico Special, the race celebrated for matching War Admiral and Seabiscuit in 1938. A film on the life and times of Seabiscuit is scheduled for release in July, and to take note of the occasion, Pimlico will stage a re-enactment of the match race Friday, with riders in the colors of Charles Howard and Sam Riddle.

Racing fans in the East have heard about and read about Mineshaft, who earned spectacular Beyer Figures in winning the New Orleans Handicap and Keeneland's Ben Ali. He's being hailed as a horse with special talents, and will be making his first appearance at an Eastern track on Friday.

Mineshaft, a handsome 4-year-old colt by A.P. Indy, is owned by Will Farish, the United States Ambassador to England, in partnership with two friends from Houston, James Elkins and Temple Webber Jr. Farish has a small stable in England with John Gosden, and Mineshaft spent his 2-year-old season abroad.

His form was moderate, and when Gosden noted his enthusiasm and effectiveness on an all-weather track, he recommended that Mineshaft be returned to the U.S. for racing on dirt.

Mineshaft won his American debut impressively last fall at Churchill Downs and chalked up two more victories before finishing second in the Whirlaway Stakes at the Fair Grounds.

He then posted victories in the New Orleans Handicap and the Ben Ali, and thus is 5 for 6 in the land of his birth and looking better with every start.

"This is a runner," trainer Neil Howard said. "There is a lot to him, including his pedigree. He is out of Prospectors Delite, who has produced five foals, all of them stakes winners. I trained Prospectors Delite, winner of the Ashland and the Acorn. Another of her foals was Tomisue's Delight, winner of the Ruffian and the Personal Ensign. Mineshaft acts like a good horse, looks like a good horse, and runs like a good horse. He had a Beyer of 116 in the New Orleans Handicap and equaled that figure in the Ben Ali. He could be any kind."

He had better be, for the Pimlico Special is full of quality. Snake Mountain has had a big season at Aqueduct. Hero's Tribute was impressive in winning the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. Balto Star is the winner of more than $1 million. Puzzlement has run well against strong company, and there are others in the race with excellent credentials. This Special could be special.