Preakness Remains Maryland's Biggest Day
By Mike Gibbons, Sports Legends
Every year Maryland's biggest sporting day is not defined by the crack of the bat or the crunch of helmet on helmet, but instead by the slap of leather and the thunder of hooves. Because come May, thoroughbred racing’s sparkling middle jewel comes to Pimlico, Baltimore’s "Old Hilltop."
Secretariat beats out Sham to take the '73 Preakness. (Jim McCue/MJC)
On that day, the third Saturday of every May, more than 100,000 fans jam the infield and grandstands of our city’s venerable home track, while countless millions watch on televisions around the world. They eagerly wait to see if the Kentucky Derby winner can keep alive hopes for a Triple Crown victory, considered by many the toughest feat in sports.
Horse racing, the sport of kings, is deeply rooted in Maryland’s rolling landscape, dating back to colonial times. The Maryland Jockey Club, Pimlico’s corporate enterprise, was established in 1743 and is the oldest sporting association in America.
The genesis of the Preakness tradition dates back to Oct. 25, 1870, the day Pimlico opened. A 3-year-old colt named Preakness won The Dinner Party, Pimlico’s first stakes race. Three years later, the Maryland Jockey Club established the Preakness Stakes race to honor that first winner.
Two years before the Kentucky Derby, Survivor won the first Preakness in 1873, establishing a tradition that continues Saturday, with the 132nd running. But contrary to casual belief, the Preakness has not always been run at Pimlico, or even in Baltimore for that matter.
In 1890, the race was moved to Morris Park in Bronx, N.Y. Then, following a three-year hiatus, it was staged at Gravesend Race Track in Coney Island, N.Y., from 1894-1908. But in 1909, the Preakness returned to Baltimore, and has been run here every year since.
Another tradition, that of the Woodlawn Vase, which is presented to each year’s Preakness winner, was started in 1917. But its history dates back to 1860, when the trophy was created as a challenge cup by Tiffany and Co. for the Woodlawn Racing Association in Louisville, Ky.
It was first won by a mare, Mollie Jackson, in 1861. The Civil War prevented further winners when the vase was buried to avoid being melted into Confederate shot. After the war it passed through many thoroughbred hands, from Louisville, to Elizabeth, N.J., to Coney Island, before being presented to the Maryland Jockey Club in 1917 by a director of the club, Thomas Clyde.
The Woodlawn Vase is currently housed and displayed year-round at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, and is brought to Pimlico for the Preakness winner’s presentation ceremony.
Over the course of Preakness history, many of horse racing’s most famous champions, including 11 Triple Crown winners, have run the 1 3/16 race. The speed record was set by Secretariat in 1973, equaled by Tank’s Prospect in 1985 and Louis Quatorze eleven years later. In 2004, Smarty Jones established the record margin of victory at 11.5 lengths.
But perhaps the most famous and most notorious horse to grace Pimlico's winner’s circle and don the horseshoe of black-eyed susans was War Admiral, racing’s fourth Triple Crown winner in 1937. The famed stallion returned to Pimlico one year later for the most famous match race ever, in which he went head-to-head with underdog Seabiscuit and lost.
Pimlico’s Preakness Stakes -- one of the world’s ultimate sporting events and still, proudly, the biggest day on Maryland's sporting calendar.
Issue 2.20: May 17, 2007