After a three-year absence, the Pimlico Special returns Friday with a Grade III rating, a $300,000 purse and a talented field of 10 handicap runners. Fifteen of the 41 Pimlico Special winners have earned Horse of the Year honors.
If one could say there's a headliner among this nice group of horses, Alternation could be it. He brought a three-race winning streak into Maryland when he arrived last Friday for the 1 3/16-mile race.
Alternation has the most impressive recent credentials, including his most recent victory in the Oaklawn Handicap on April 14. In that sole race, he defeated three of the rivals he will face in the Special: Yawanna Twist (third), Hymn Book (fourth) and Nehro (sixth). The score 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 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."
Pimlico Special Entry Chart w/ Morning Line
As tough as he looks, Alternation is not the morning line favorite.
That would be Mission Impazible from the powerful Todd Pletcher barn, listed at 7-to-2. Mission Impazible has not won in more than a year. He lost to Hymn Book by a nose in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream last February, but he's competed at the highest levels 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, 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. 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 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 Grade II General George at Laurel Park in February, beating, among others, Toby’s Corner. The son of Yonaguska finished fourth in the 2010 Preakness Stakes while in the Rick Dutrow barn.
A possible longshot pick could be Cease (8-to-1), who threw in a clunker last time out on the synthetic track at Keeneland. He's getting back on dirt, where he has run creditably. With a horse from fabled Claiborne Farm and Rosie Napravnik 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 polytrack 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 once in eight career starts and none in his 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).
--Edited Maryland Jockey Club release