Preakness Stakes

preaknesstakesBefore there was a Kentucky Derby, there were the Preakness Stakes. This prestigious race for thoroughbreds dates back to 1873, two years before the first Run for the Roses. However the idea for the Preakness Stakes is even older still.

In 1868, Maryland governor Oden Bowie, who was both a horse lover and a businessman, was attending a swank dinner party being held after the races at Saratoga. One of the guests, a gentleman named John Hunter, proposed that the dinner be commemorated the following year by a stakes race, to be called the Dinner Party Stakes. Bowie proposed a purse of $15,000 and promised to build a new racetrack for the event. That’s how Pimlico Race Course came to be.

The first Dinner Party Stakes were run in the fall 1870 at Pimlico’s opening. The winning horse was a massive bay colt named Preakness, who was running in his first race. When Pimlico held its first ever spring meet in 1873, organizers created a signature stakes race and called it the Preakness Stakes.

Speaking of tradition, the terms wire and purse trace at least as far back as those first Dinner Party Stakes. As was the custom of the day, a wire was stretched across the track, holding up a small silk bag with gold coins inside. When Preakness won the race, his jockey, Billy Hayward, ceremoniously untied the bag, thus taking the purse at the wire.

With Pimlico already generating plenty of buzz in its infancy, 12,000 eager fans attended the first Preakness Stakes and watched Survivor beat a field of six other horses, winning by a margin of 10 lengths – a record that wasn’t broken until 2004, when Smarty Jones won the Preakness by 11.5 lengths over Rock Hard Ten. Survivor’s winning purse was $,2050, or about $38,000 in today’s money.

As successful as the Preakness was in its early days, the state of horse racing changed dramatically in 1889 when the Maryland Jockey Club abandoned Pimlico. The Preakness was moved to New York’s Morris Park the following year, and then wasn’t run at all in 1891, 1892 or 1893. The Gravesend track in Brooklyn became the new home of the Preakness in 1894, and the race remained there until finally returning to Pimlico in 1909 – just in time for an anti-gambling movement that nearly derailed the Preakness again.

There was a time when historians didn’t even recognize these so-called “lost” Preakness Stakes. It wasn’t until 1948 that the results from Gravesend were added to the official list; the 1890 running at Morris Park was finally included at some point during the 1960s. It’s unfortunate that history took so long to recognize great champions like Sly Fox (1898), whose jockey, Willie Simms, is still the only African-American jockey ever to win the Preakness. The “lost” years also include the first two of the five Preakness-winning fillies in history: Flocarline in 1903 and Whimsical in 1906.

Having finally gotten the Preakness back in 1909, Pimlico held onto it for dear life. Billy Riggs is credited with saving horse racing at Pimlico during the anti-gambling movement by introducing pari-mutuel betting machines, or “French Pools,” in 1913. This betting system was considered less sinful than using bookmakers, and allowed horseracing to escape prohibition in Maryland and Kentucky. It proved so popular that the Preakness was a must-see event by the end of the decade.

Excellent timing. The 1919 race was won by Sir Barton, who also won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont that year, becoming the first horse to win what would later be called the Triple Crown of American thoroughbred racing. In 1920, the great Man o’ War won the Preakness on his way to a career record of 20 wins in 21 races.

As it was with the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness rose in prominence during the 1930s as pari-mutuel betting was widely accepted across America. The concept of the Triple Crown also gained traction during this decade, as Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937) all won the Preakness as well as the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. Race organizers wisely standardized the schedule so that the Preakness would always be run on the third Saturday in May, two weeks after the Derby and three weeks before the Belmont.

We’ve seen some great horses win the Preakness over the years, but in the modern era, none was greater than 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. He crossed the wire in 1:53, a record time for any stakes race, and a time that wasn’t officially recognized until 2012 when the Maryland Racing Commission revisited an earlier decision that timed the race at 1:54.4. Secretariat’s Preakness record stands to this day; he also set the current records for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.