05/16/2012 1:36PM

Hovdey: Pimlico Special and Endorsement both making a comeback

Barbara D. Livingston
Eoin Harty, who was part of the 1999 Pimlico Special winning team as an assistant to Bob Baffert, has a good shot to win Friday's edition of the race with Endorsement.

The Pimlico Special used to be just that – special. Few American races for older horses can boast such an entertaining history. The Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race. The Citation walkover. The showdown between older champ Stymie and Triple Crown winner Assault.

Ancient history, granted, played out in black and white, all grainy, with the men wearing hats and smoking Chesterfields. Then came living color, and the Special glowed, helping make the case for Horse of the Year when it was won by Criminal Type, Cigar, Skip Away, Mineshaft, and Invasor.

At the same time, the Pimlico Special has been treated by its owners as the canary in the coal mine of Maryland racing. When things go bad, the race gets a cough. The Special was pulled from the schedule in 1959 and was not resurrected until the heady days of the late 1980s, when business was on the march. Invigorated, the race became a part of the national conversation again.

Then came the uncertainty of the 21st century, and the shift in Pimlico’s control from the De Francis family to Magna Entertainment. The Special, considered unsustainable at a Grade 1 purse level, was cancelled in 2002, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Now the Special is back on Friday with a field of 10, the largest gathering since 1990. Its graded ranking had been forfeited, so management simply took its Grade 3 William Donald Schaefer Handicap, run since 1994, and renamed it the Pimlico Special – voila! – with no apologies to William Donald Schaefer, four-term Baltimore mayor and two-term Maryland governor, who died in April 2011 anyway.

Eoin Harty won a Pimlico Special in 1999, his final season as Bob Baffert’s top assistant, when 1998 Preakness hero Real Quiet defeated 1997 Preakness runner-up Free House. Harty will be back on Friday with Bill and Susan Casner’s 5-year-old Endorsement, who went wrong before he could get to a Preakness but did win the 2010 Sunland Derby (while trained by Shannon Ritter) and more recently took the Texas Mile at Lone Star Park.

This sat well with the Casners, who live in Flower Mound, just north of Lone Star. Harty came away from the experience feeling as if the eyes of Texas were very much upon him. And yet this did not stop him from wearing his trademark New York Yankees ballcap during training hours.

“I spent time that day with a Dallas football legend, a good friend of Bill’s,” said Harty, an Irishman whose tastes lean more toward Manchester United than the Cowboys. “I don’t want to get the name wrong – Walt Garrison?”

Right the first time. And while Harty did not exactly kiss Garrison’s 1970 Super Bowl ring, the trainer was duly impressed, although he spent more of his afternoon – when not seeing to Endorsement’s two-length victory – in the company of one Billy Bob Barnett.

“A man after my own heart, and never mind that he owns the world’s biggest bar,” Harty said. “If I had to choose five people to spend a lot of time with, this guy would be one of them. He’s a sage. He doesn’t say a lot but he doesn’t miss anything.”

Technically, Billy Bob’s of Fort Worth is hailed as the world’s largest honky tonk, but that’s nitpicking. The point is Endorsement and his crew could have gone right back to Texas next week for the $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap and probably would have been favored. Instead, they are taking on the red-hot Alternation, Donn Handicap winner Hymn Book, and local favorites Cherokee Artist and Toby’s Corner in the Special, for a pot of $300,000 at its traditional 1 3/16 miles.

Harty was reached in Kentucky, where he was spending an early evening with a line in the water of a bass pond at WinStar Farm, where Endorsement hangs out when he’s not at the track. It is to his everlasting credit that he can tolerate an interview and fish at the same time.

But then, Endorsement’s is a good story to tell. He is in the midst of an admirable comeback from a fractured ankle suffered while training for the 2010 Kentucky Derby, and he has had four races now for Harty since December, each one better than the last. Martin Garcia, who was aboard for Endorsement’s maiden win in 2010 at Oaklawn Park, gets the mount from his Texas Mile rider, Robby Albarado.

“He came out of his last race looking supremely fit, as if it took nothing out of him,” Harty said of the April 28 Texas Mile. “He vanned down there from Kentucky, and he’ll van to Baltimore Wednesday night. He’s one tough mother. I’m not sure how he’d act on a plane. If he’s not kicking, biting, or striking he’s hollering. I might wait to take him to Dubai before I fly him anywhere.”

Yes, Harty gets to think like that with a horse like Endorsement, circling the 2013 Dubai World Cup as a reasonable goal. Harty already knows how to win the event, having taken it with Well Armed in 2009. And because Endorsement races effectively without phenylbutazone or Lasix, the horse already has a leg up on Dubai’s drug-free conditions.

But first, there’s the Pimlico Special to deal with. Harty is pretty sure that the horse who beats Alternation wins the race.

“The way he ran the other day he showed a whole new patient dimension I didn’t know he had in him,” Harty said, referring to Alternation’s score in the Oaklawn Handicap, when he handled Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek. “He went from being a nice horse to being a very good horse, in my opinion. We’ll see if our horse can step up.”