04/01/2002 1:00AM

Feature races placed in a cluster


Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore opens for live racing Wednesday with its sights narrowly set on the spring weekend anchored by the May 18 Preakness Stakes, second leg of the Triple Crown.

By a wide margin, Preakness weekend promises to be the highlight of the 54-day meet, which will end on June 16. Thirteen of the track's 28 stakes will be run Preakness weekend, including all eight of its graded stakes.

The Preakness, run at 1 3/16 miles over the dirt, is increasingly becoming the most critical date on the Maryland racing calendar. Receipts from the weekend have been credited with making the Maryland Jockey Club, owner of Pimlico and its suburban-Maryland sister track, Laurel Park, profitable.

This year, the Preakness is even more important to the MJC's bottom line and reputation: It will be the only Grade 1 race to be run at Pimlico this year. At the urging of its horsemen, Pimlico suspended its only other Grade 1 race, the Pimlico Special, for one year because of an anticipated purse shortfall. Track officials have said the race will return next year.

"It's unfortunate, and it's not a move we wanted to make," MJC chief operating officer Lou Rafetto said recently.

The Special, which has been won by War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Assault, Citation, and Cigar, had shared Grade 1 billing with the Preakness since 1990, two years after it was revived at the track following a 30-year hiatus. The race, worth $600,000 last year, was typically run one week before the Preakness.

Racing wrapped up at Pimlico's sister track, Laurel Park, on Saturday, the last day of a 64-day winter meet, with encouraging signs. All-sources handle was up 7 percent, to $232 million, the MJC said. Average field size was up 8 percent, from 7.3 horses per race to 7.9.

Pimlico will hold four stakes restricted to Maryland-bred runners on April 20, the same day as the open Frederico Tesio Stakes - a Preakness prep for some latecomers to the Triple Crown trail.