04/18/2005 12:00AM

Preakness the highlight of stakes-packed meet


Spring signals the start of trout season for fishermen and baseball season for America's sports fans. It's also a special time of the year for Maryland racing.

The marquee meet of Maryland's Thoroughbred season begins Wednesday, when Pimlico Race Course, which held its first race in the fall of 1870, reopens for 39 days through June 12.

Although the meet has been shortened by three weeks from last year, it still features 26 stakes worth a collective $4 million, including the 130th running of the $1 million Preakness Stakes on May 21.

"We are always thrilled to go back to Pimlico in the spring," said Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel. "It is our signature meet of the year. The focus has been on the Preakness for quite some time. It is an exciting time, and we are looking forward to showcasing the best of Maryland racing."

Fourteen of the stakes, including all 10 of the graded stakes for the meet, are scheduled for Preakness week, including nine on Preakness Day.

The Grade 1, $500,000 Pimlico Special headlines the May 20 card, which features four other stakes.

The first Saturday program of the meet will include five six-figure stakes races and is being called the Spring Festival of Racing. It is highlighted by the $200,000 Jim McKay Breeders' Cup Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up, and the $150,000 Federico Tesio Stakes for 3-year-olds. The Tesio, which will be shown live on ESPN2, has served as a stepping-stone to the Preakness for such horses as Oliver's Twist (1995) and Magic Weisner (2002), and 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony.

The other three stakes on Saturday will showcase Maryland Million-nominated or Maryland-bred runners. Three of the state's leading breeding farms are each sponsoring a race and have donated seasons to two stallions. The new stakes for Maryland-breds and Maryland Million nominees, worth $100,000 apiece counting bonus money, are:

* The Country Life Farm, 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-old fillies, with donated stallion seasons to No Armistice and Parker's Storm Cat.

* The Maryland Stallion Station, six furlongs for 3-year-olds, with donated stallion seasons to Jazz Club and Seeking Daylight.

* The Northview Stallion Station, 1 1/8 miles for fillies and mares with donated stallion seasons to Polish Miner and Great Notion.

Wednesday's opening-day program includes the state's first two turf races of the season and a pair of optional claiming races. Both one-mile grass races, one for maidens and the other a first-level allowance for fillies and mares, have full fields. Post time is 1:10 p.m. Eastern.