By Tom LaMarra

The widely acclaimed MATCH Series returned after 16 years with a splash at Pimlico Race Course–in more ways than one–and the enthusiasm shown by the participants was a positive sign for the Series as it moves to Monmouth Park May 26.

Steady rain over the May 18-19 Preakness Stakes weekend proved a challenge as numerous races were switched from the turf to a dirt track rated sloppy on both days. The Preakness Day MATCH Series races–the grade III, $150,000 Maryland Sprint Stakes and $100,000 The Very One Stakes–had fields of nine and eight, respectively. Only one other race had nine runners, and one other one had eight.

The Maryland Sprint (3-Year-Old and Up Sprint–Dirt Division), won by Woodford Racing’s Switzerland, generated more than $4 million in wagering, down a bit from last year but roughly double the handle in 2016. The Very One (Filly and Mare Sprint–Turf Division), captured by Brian Chenvert and Eddie Kenneally’s Girls Know Best, came off the grass with six scratches, but it handled more than $3.5 million, much higher than last year when it was run on the turf and comparable to 2016 when a field of 12 raced on the turf course.

Vertical Oak got the money on a sloppy day at Pimlico/Tom LaMarra photo

On May 18, Breeze Easy’s Imprimis won the $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint (3-Year-Old and Up Sprint–Turf Division) in a field scratched down to five. J. Kirk and Judy Robison’s Vertical Oak took the $100,000 Skipat Stakes (Filly and Mare Sprint–Dirt Division), which also scratched down to five horses.

“Everybody braved the weather and was enthusiastic,” Maryland Jockey Club President Sal Sinatra said. “We’re glad to see the MATCH Series back, and now we can build on that. The weather definitely impacted the fields, particularly on Friday. We’ll just regroup.”

“We worked so hard to get everyone focused on MATCH and it exceeded our expectations, except for Mother Nature, who did not cooperate,” MATCH creator Alan Foreman said. “Despite the challenge of the most abysmal weather conditions in Preakness weekend history, we had a great debut and the response was tremendous.

“We thank the Maryland Jockey Club and The Stronach Group for their support this past week. It was like old times. We look forward now as the Series moves throughout the region.”

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who trains Switzerland and Vertical Oak, has a regular presence in New York and indicated he plans to continue participating in the MATCH Series. “We do have horses that fit the Series, and we expect to use it,” he said.

Mike Hall, a partner in Breeze Easy, said the MATCH Series “seems like a wonderful project you’ve all put together,” while Joe Orseno, who trains Imprimis, said the Florida-bred will remain with his Monmouth string this summer and could reappear in the Series, either at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course or Parx Racing.

The Series now moves to Monmouth Park, where the first of five races in the 3-Year-Old and Up Long–Dirt Division, the $100,000, grade III Salvator Mile, is one of four stakes on the Saturday as part of its Memorial Day Weekend celebration.

Entries will be taken May 23, the same day nominations close for the $200,000 Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup (3-Year-Old and Up Sprint–Turf Division) and $100,000 Penn Ladies Turf (Filly and Mare Sprint–Turf Division), both scheduled for June 2 at Penn National.