02/01/2007 1:00AM

Pimlico Special well worth saving


NEW YORK - While the three Triple Crown races each spring are widely considered the sport's signature events, eight other races across the country in the course of the year have crowned the Horse of the Year in recent seasons.

The last four winners of that Eclipse Award scored all of their championship-season Grade 1 victories in those eight events, each winning two or more of them. Mineshaft in 2003 won the Pimlico Special, Stephen Foster, Suburban, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Ghostzapper in 2004 won the Woodward and Breeders' Cup Classic. Saint Liam took the 2005 Donn, Foster, Woodward, and Classic, and Invasor won last year's Pimlico Special, Suburban, Whitney, and Classic.

Victories in these hallowed events defined these horses' excellence and were considered important enough to provide them with deserving runaway Horse of the Year victories over a trio of dual-classic winners (Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Afleet Alex) and last year's dynamic duo of Barbaro and Bernardini. You would think these races had earned their place and their keep, but in one case you would be wrong: The only certainty about the 2007 Horse of the Year will be that his resume will lack a victory in the Pimlico Special, because the race has been canceled.

On Jan. 25, the Maryland Jockey Club announced it would scrap the race for this year, due to a shortage of funds stemming from the Maryland legislature's ongoing failure to approve slot machines in the state. The announcement came the same day that track officials testified about their plight before a state Senate Finance Committee in a hearing on the future of Maryland racing.

The frustration of Pimlico officials and their parent company, Magna Entertainment, is understandable. All of its competitors in the cramped Mid-Atlantic corridor offer slots, with machines at the tracks in Delaware, West Virginia, and now Pennsylvania, not to mention full-blown casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. If ever a state had a clear-cut argument for slots as a competitive necessity, it is Maryland. Its legislators, however, regardless of party affiliation and under one administration after another, have managed to botch the issue.

Even so, canceling the Special - which the track did in a similar bid for slots sympathy in 2002 - was a hollow and petulant gesture. It ultimately damages the sport at large and Maryland racing in particular, which now will be down to offering only two Grade 1 races a year, the Preakness and the De Francis Dash. While track officials say they had "no choice" and needed the race's $500,000 purse to keep its overnight racing even barely competitive with slots-fueled purses, its poverty plea seems disingenuous given other ways that Magna spends money on purses.

Three days after saying it could not afford to continue presenting an important fixture on the American racing calendar, Magna again presented its Sunshine Millions program in Florida and California, eight events offering a bountiful $3.6 million in purse money. The Millions has grown into a fascinating card with full fields and plenty of betting appeal, but Magna could reduce its purses to $2.6 million without losing a single entrant for the races or a single television viewer. The savings could pay for two Pimlico Specials.

Magna does not need to damage its racing and punish the sport and its customers to make its point about needing slots in Maryland. The company has let its feet do some very loud talking, walking away from racing in states such as Michigan and Oklahoma where slots efforts have failed. Maryland lawmakers need to pay attention to that, but canceling the Special only devalues a product at a time when the message should be that it is a product worth saving.

The best way to honor Barbaro

People keep asking what they can "do" in the wake of Barbaro's death last Monday. While the urges to mourn, to point fingers, or to debate the psychological factors involved in his broad appeal are understandable, the most constructive thing anyone who loves horses can do at this point is to get out a checkbook and give as generously as possible to veterinary research.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association announced Thursday the formation of a Barbaro Memorial Fund, which will distribute 100 percent of donations directly to charities seeking a cure for laminitis, including the Laminitis Fund established at the University of Pennsylvania and the ongoing efforts of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. Contributions can be made by mail to: NTRA Charities - Barbaro Memorial Fund, c/o Bessemer Trust Company, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10111.