The Preakness is Maryland’s race: it’s “Maryland, My Maryland” and black-eyed Susans and blue crabs. It’s so important to the state that when financial difficulties threatened racing in Maryland, the governor stepped in to make sure that the Preakness would stay in Baltimore.
But 120 years ago, when financial woes imperiled the racing industry in Maryland, nothing could keep the Preakness there, and Maryland’s loss was New York’s gain.
In fact, the Preakness was conceived, sort of, at a dinner party in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1868. Maryland’s governor, Oden Bowie, was having dinner with some well-heeled racing friends, and it was proposed that a sweepstakes be run in Maryland. The website for the Preakness Stakes indicates that the plan was to hold the race two years later, in 1870; it would be a two-mile race for three-year-old fillies and colts, and it would be called the Dinner Party Stakes.
Bowie, the driving force behind the idea, built a racetrack in Maryland to stage the race, and in 1870, just as planned, the first Dinner Party Stakes was run on opening day at Pimlico. The first winner of the race? A horse named Preakness.
The Dinner Party Stakes went on to become the Dixie; three years after Preakness’s victory, his achievement was commemorated in a stakes race named for him, and the Preakness was born, first run in 1873, two years before the first Kentucky Derby.
By 1890 Maryland racing had fallen on hard times, and that year the Preakness moved northward, to Morris Park in the Bronx. It was held on Belmont Stakes day, and the winner that year was a horse named Montague. (You are not the only one saying, “Who?”)
The Preakness wasn’t run at all for the next three years; when it was renewed in 1894, the race had moved again, this time to the Gravesend track in Brooklyn, which it called home for the next fifteen years. A perusal of racing archives makes apparent that the Preakness held little major significance on the racing landscape; often, it wasn’t even the feature race, though as the years went on, its profile rose. The list of winners through the Gravesend years does not yield any household names.
The Preakness returned to Pimlico in 1909, due at least in part to the rise of anti-gambling sentiment in New York (betting on horse racing would be outlawed in 1911) and has been held there ever since.
The relative insignificance of these New York races is noted at the Preakness site, which informs us that “these 15 so-called ‘lost’ Preaknesses were officially enrolled in the race history of the classic in 1948; the 1890 Preakness was added in the 1960′s.”
A May 14, 1922 article in the Daily Racing Form (pdf) offers a history of the Preakness Stakes, and to that fine publication, these New York years don’t even exist. It notes the first running of the race as May 12, 1909, and belittles all renewals before 1917:
As stake histories go the annals of the Preakness at Pimlico, now worth $50,000 in added money and rival of the Kentucky Derby as America’s most coveted three-year-old prize, are not of great length. Until the ninth running, in 1917, the Preakness was an event of no outstanding importance and the records of its victors prior to that date, with one or two possible exceptions, can be searched in vain for thoroughbred names of exceptional quality or performance.
These days, the Preakness is the race on which Triple Crown hopes pivot. Winning the Kentucky Derby might be great, but Triple Crown dreams live and die at Pimlico. Thank you, Maryland, for letting us New Yorkers have your race, at least for a little while.