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Jacques Kelly: When considering the fate of the Preakness at Pimlico, don't forget the comeback of 1909

Some people are predicting the days of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course are numbered. They should remember the track, and the race, has faced down extinction before but paired up nicely for a comeback.

In the late 1880s, after 17 years running the race, the Maryland Jockey Club fell on tough times, and in 1890 the Preakness was run in what is now the Bronx in New York City. For the next three years there was no Preakness, then it was picked up as a feature for 15 years at a track in what is now Brooklyn.

It was 1909 when the Preakness returned to Baltimore. A headline that March in The Sun forecast the resumption of the race: “To revive Preakness — Prominent nags to be in famous event at Pimlico.”

That May, as the spring racing meet opened, August Belmont Jr., then the most famous man in thoroughbred racing, arrived in Baltimore. The New York financial titan had just finished bankrolling and building New York’s first subway, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. He would later construct Belmont Park in memory of his father.

The Sun reported: “Mr. Belmont will make a strong effort to carry off the newly opened Preakness Stakes, which will attract the best three-year-olds of the season.”

The Preakness was run on Wednesday, May 12, 1909. The paper estimated 1,000 visitors had strained the capacity of the city’s hotels. “Many had come to combine the purchase of goods with a chance to see the ponies go.”

Even days before the race, stands were packed to capacity for the afternoon racing cards. Veterans of the track said it was the most crowded they had seen Old Hilltop since 1877.

Baltimore got some of the attention. “The races advertised the city largely, as reports... were sent everywhere by a large staff of out-of-town turf writers,” The Sun reported. The paper noted that extra money had been spent on automobile and carriage hires — and at “jewelers, restaurants, haberdashers, clothiers, and shoe dealers.”

“As an appreciation of the high-class and clean racing, … a number of ladies have sent cut flowers to the officials, [who] wore American Beauty roses as boutonnieres as large as early cabbages,” the paper wrote.

The playing of the state song was included — though it came later in the afternoon, more than an hour after the Preakness, the third race of seven.

“Before the last race started the bugle player of the band went into the judges’ stand enclosure and played ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ the band in the grandstand played the accompaniment and the crowd cheered. It was a fitting roundup of a great meeting,” The Sun reported.

Jockey Willie Doyle rode Effendi to victory that afternoon in the Preakness. It was a fantastic upset. He was a 15-to-1 longshot and beat the favorite, Fashion Plate. Statesman, another top condender, broke an ankle and had be carried off to a Green Spring Valley veterinarian.

“Effendi’s improvement was as sudden as it was startling. He showed his speed at all stages and set … a killing pace from start to finish,” according to The Sun.

Doyle carried 11 pounds of lead aboard Effendi to make the 116-pound weight assessment in the 1909 race. The horse went on to win many more races and was dubbed Iron Horse for his stamina and victories.

By 1920, Doyle had given up riding but was made a patrol judge, and was in the stand that year when Man o’ War won the Preakness.

Doyle, who lived in Upper Marlboro, told a turf writer in 1949 that he wanted to be around for the 50th anniversary of his victory aboard Effendi. He did not make it. He died the next year.

“Willie Doyle… has heard his last call to the post,” The Sun’s obituary said.

Yet like the Preakness in Baltimore, Doyle’s legacy endures. His ashes were scattered at the Pimlico finish line.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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