BALTIMORE, 05-14-12---After a three-year absence, the Pimlico Special returns Friday with a Grade 3 rating, a $300,000 purse and a stellar field of 10 handicap runners. Fifteen of the previous 41 winners earned Horse of the Year honors.
Seven other stakes help comprise the 13-race card including the return of the $300,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (G2) and also featuring the $30,000 Pimlico Female Jockey Challenge, back for its second year, and the Lady Legends for the Cure Race III, a pari-mutuel event between eight retired female riders.
Heading the Special lineup is Alternation, who brought a three-race winning streak into Maryland when he arrived last Friday.
Alternation has the most impressive recent credentials, including his latest victory in the Oaklawn Handicap on April 14 when he defeated three of the rivals he will face in the Special, Yawanna Twist (third), Hymn Book (fourth) and Nehro (sixth). That increased the lifetime earnings of the grandson of Forty Niner and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew to more than $720,000.
"This looked like a good next step for him," said Alternation's trainer Donnie Von Hemel. "We liked the distance (1 3/16 miles) and the type of race it is. It's a race with a lot of tradition and history and it will set him up nicely for the Stephen Foster."
Von Hemel said the horse was brought to Maryland early because "when you're coming from as far away as we were, you can't crowd the race. There was plenty of time to get him a nice trip and do a little schooling here."
In a well balanced race, Mission Impazible from the powerful Todd Pletcher barn is listed as the 7-to-2 overnight favorite with Hymn Book right behind at 4-to-1 and Alternation at 9-to-2.
Mission Impazible has not won in more than a year, losing to Hymn Book by a nose in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream last February, but has competed at the highest level and bankrolled nearly $1,234,000, tops in the field.
Hymn Book "had a little bit of an off day" in his most recent outing, according to trainer Shug McGaughey. "But he's seen a lot of these horses and he's in there with them. I like this spot because it's around two turns and he's doing good. Of course, he likes about anything."
Toby's Corner, ranked at 6-to-1 from the rail post, will be making his third start since suffering an injury that prevented him from competing in the 2011 Triple Crown series and sent his stablemate, Animal Kingdom, to fame in a Kentucky Derby triumph. Trainer Graham Motion has been pleased with Toby's Corner's return to the track which has included two third-place finishes this year.
"The last time at New Orleans we had a long way to go and the track was very speed favoring that day," said Motion of an effort in the New Orleans Handicap when Mission Impazible (second) was among his conquerors. "He had a nice breeze, going six in 13 and change and we believe this spot fit in very well with what we're trying to do."
Motion, who was stabled at Laurel Park before shifting to the Fair Hill Training Center 60 miles away from Pimlico, said competing in the Special "is in my blood. This is local with a nice purse and these prestigious races this week are what you look forward to. We're very lucky to be part of them."
Yawanna Twist (12-to-1) is back in Maryland where he won the General George (G2) at Laurel Park in February, beating among others Toby’s Corner. The son of Yonaguska finished fourth in the 2010 Preakness Stakes (G1), while in the Rick Dutrow barn.
A possible longshot pick could be Cease (8-to-1), who threw in a clinker last time out on the synthetic track at Keeneland, but will be getting back on dirt, where he has done creditably. With a horse from fabled Claiborne Farm and jockey Rosie Napravnik, who earned her first career victory at Pimlico in June 2005 in the saddle, trainer Al Stall, Jr. may have a tough combination to beat.
"He's got really good figures on dirt," said Stall. "On that poly track that winner (Wise Dan) set a track record that day. You don't expect that and to get beat by 10 lengths. I know there are some tough horses in there, but on the dirt, his numbers match up."
Nehro (8-to-1) is pushing toward $1 million in earnings after a solid performance in the 2011 Triple Crown series, including a runner-up to Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby. Nehro is trained by Steve Asmussen, who prepared Student Council for a victory in the last Pimlico Special four years ago.
Another to consider is Endorsement (8-to-1), who has been worse than second just one in eight career starts and never in the last seven.
Completing the lineup will be the local contingent of Eighttofasttocatch (15-to-1), a multiple stakes winner at Laurel Park, and Cherokee Artist (20-to-1).
The Pimlico Special field, from the rail out: Toby’s Corner (trainer Graham Motion, jockey Eddie Castro, 118 pounds, 6-1); Endorsement (trainer Eoin Harty, jockey Martin Garcia, 124 pounds, 8-1); Cease (trainer Albert Stall Jr., jockey Rosie Napravnik, 124 pounds, 15-1); Hymn Book (trainer Shug McGaughey, jockey John Velazquez, 124 pounds, 9-2); Cherokee Artist (trainer Jerry Robb, jockey Victor Santiago, 118 pounds, 20-1); Nehro (trainer Steve Asmussen, jockey Corey Nakatani, 118 pounds, 8-1); Mission Impazible (trainer Todd Pletcher, jockey Javier Castellano, 118 pounds, 7-2); Yawanna Twist (trainer John Parisella, jockey Mike Luzzi, 118 pounds, 12-1); Alternation (trainer Donnie Von Hemel, jockey Luis Quinonez, 124 pounds, 4-1); Eighttofasttocatch (trainer Tim Keefe, jockey Sheldon Russell, 124 pounds, 15-1).