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History Fills Old Hilltop

By Mike Rogers

Pimlico is in its 139th year of operation under the management of the Maryland Jockey Club, a feat of commercial success, endurance and perseverance through Maryland history that few other organizations have matched. The people of Baltimore have endured depressions, wars, civil unrest, and still the popularity of horse racing has ebbed and flowed with each passing era and generation. Through it all, Pimlico racetrack, upon "Old Hilltop," has always endured and remains a constant fixture of civic pride and national admiration.

The history of Pimlico traces its beginnings back to an 1867 charter that established the Maryland State Agricultural and Mechanical Association (MSAMA). Leading farmers from all counties in the state of Maryland were appointed to govern its operation, to promote the state's agriculture and livestock industry through a series of state fairs.

The first event held at the new Pimlico Fair Grounds was a successful three-day agricultural fair on Oct. 26, 1869. However, the ability to attract people from the surrounding counties became difficult and subsequent fairs were financial failures. The last fair was held in 1871.

To avoid defaulting on their agreement and surrendering the property to the City of Baltimore, the MSAMA began leasing the property to the Maryland Jockey Club on June 21, 1870. MJC paid $10,000 for a 10-year lease with exclusive usage rights for the months of May and October.

The first race at Pimlico under MJC management occurred on Oct. 25, 1870. More than 12,000 people watched a horse named Preakness win.

Three years later, the first running of the Preakness Stakes would begin a Baltimore tradition that continues today. Here are some interesting historical tidbits about the Preakness:

A horse named Survivor won the first Preakness Stakes on May 27, 1873 (two years before the first Kentucky Derby) by a remarkable 10 lengths, which stood as a record unmatched until 2004, when Smarty Jones' bettered it with an 11-length win.

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The Preakness Stakes was held every year until 1890, when financial problems forced it to relocate to Morris Park in New York. The Preakness returned to Pimlico in 1909.

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The Preakness is also referred to as the "Run for the Black Eyed Susans," Maryland's state flower. Ironically, since they do not bloom until June, painted daisies are used in their place to form the blanket that is placed over the winning horse's neck and shoulders.

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Since 1954, the winner of the Preakness Stakes has been awarded a replica of the Woodlawn Vase. The replicas are valued at $30,000 and crafted by the former Baltimore silver company Kirk-Stieff. The original Woodlawn Vase was crafted in 1860 for the Woodlawn Racing Association in Louisville, Ky.

The original vase is considered the most valuable trophy in all of sports with an estimated value in excess of $1 million. It is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art and moved only once each year when brought to Pimlico to be present for the running of the race.

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Arguably the most significant date in Pimlico history is Nov. 1, 1938. On that day, the sixth race pitted the two legendary horses, War Admiral and Seabiscuit, in winner-take-all stakes. Few gave Seabiscuit a chance against War Admiral, who a year before captured the Triple Crown.

Seabiscuit took advantage of the walking start and got a quick lead on War Admiral but the race remained close until the final 150 yards, at which point Seabiscuit used his characteristic late charge to win the race by four lengths.

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The historic life of Pimlico can be appreciated when compared to other milestones occurring the same year Pimlico began racing in 1870. The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge began, President Grant met with Sioux Chief Red Cloud, the last remaining Confederate State (Georgia) was readmitted to the Union, the first New York City subway went into service and the U.S. postal service issued its first postcard.

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In a few short weeks, the 134th Preakness Stakes will be run at Pimlico. But, behind all the glitz is the stark reality of the track's economic woes, notably marked by Magna Entertainment's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing this past March. Economic problems have been plaguing Maryland thoroughbred racing for years, but are not more evident than now, during the present economic crisis.

As the Maryland racing business has suffered, so has the quality of Pimlico amenities, and as the shine has faded from its façade, so has the collective appreciation for the role Pimlico has played in Baltimore and horse racing history.

Issue 136: April 2009