04/17/2007 12:00AM

New meet has early heat


Pimlico will package 20 stakes into three major-event days and introduce twilight racing during its 31-day spring meet that begins Thursday.

The eight-week season should get off to a fast start when six stakes, topped by the $125,000 Federico Tesio Stakes for 3-year-olds, will be contested Saturday on a program billed as the Spring Festival of Racing.

The Tesio, which occasionally produces a Preakness starter, is expected to attract Extude, a highly promising Maryland-based colt who has won his last three starts.

The program will also feature three $125,000 stakes for Maryland-bred or Maryland Million-nominated horses as well as the $95,000 Jim McKay Sprint and the $55,000 Old Hilltop.

"This day gives a lot of the horses that hope to run Preakness weekend a chance to get a race over the track," said Lou Raffetto, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club.

Of the 27 stakes worth a collective $3.95 million, 14, including all nine of the meet's graded stakes, will be run during Preakness week.

The 132nd Preakness, worth $1 million, headlines a nine-stakes card on May 19.

Five stakes for fillies and mares will be contested on May 18, including the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan, the Grade 2 Allaire du Pont Breeders' Cup Distaff, and the Grade 3 Miss Preakness.

Absent from the schedule are the Grade 1 Pimlico Special, which was scrapped to save the $500,000 in purse money for overnight races, and the Jim McKay BC Handicap, a $200,000 race that was discontinued.

McKay, the former ABC sports broadcaster who proposed the Maryland Million concept more than two decades ago, will still have a race named in his honor. This weekend's Hoover was rechristened the McKay Sprint.

Expanding an experiment that proved popular at Laurel Park last summer, Pimlico will run twilight cards that begin at 3:15 p.m. Eastern on the three Thursdays and Fridays following the Preakness.

"The twilight was hugely successful at Laurel," Raffetto said. "People took advantage of the two-for-one beer specials and two-for-$22 dining specials, which we will be bringing back. We thought once we got past the Preakness this was something worthwhile."

Thursday's opening-day 10-race card includes a pair of turf races with full fields. Opening-day attractions include free admission and racing programs, concession specials, and a chance to win one of five prize packs.