By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
7:09 PM EDT, May 19, 2011
Gunfire. Skullduggery. Bones in the attic.
The story behind the story of the Preakness trophy reads like a great Southern novel.
The Woodlawn Vase has its roots in pre-Civil War Kentucky. It was even buried there to keep it from falling into the wrong hands by a horse breeder who once got into a gunfight with the owner of a racetrack, shot the man and was banished from all tracks in America — you could look it up in The New York Times of 1879.
The breeder, Capt. Thomas Moore, whose horses won the Tiffany-crafted, sterling silver trophy in 1861 and 1862, interred it for fear it would be melted down for shot, the popular story goes. But unless the Civil War included werewolves, that's probably not true.
Joining the vase underground, but not under dirt, was Lexington, the stallion that served as the model for the top of the vase. He sired Preakness, who won the first stakes race ever held at Pimlico in 1870, and three eventual winners of the race named after Preakness.
Lexington was hidden away to avoid a battlefield commission, died of natural causes in 1875, was buried, dug up in 1878 and donated to the Smithsonian (Catalog No. 16020). The bones, found in the museum rafters, were shipped by FedEx White Glove Service last year to the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, where the skeleton is on display.
Anyway, back to 1879. Moore was allowed to return to racing and had horses with names like Stonewall Jackson, so it's a pretty good guess which side he was trying to hide the silver vase from. It probably killed him knowing that Lexington, the horse on top of the trophy he buried to keep it from falling into Union hands, also sired Cincinnati, General Ulysses S. Grant's favorite horse.
Like an itinerant jockey, the vase bounced around among tracks in Kentucky, New Jersey, suburban New York and Coney Island before finally being turned over to the Maryland Jockey Club in 1917 to use as the prize for winning the Preakness, a race named after the son of Lexington that was shipped to England to stand in stud and shot dead in its stall by his owner, the Duke of Hamilton.
That's the third reference to gunplay in eight paragraphs about a horse racing trophy. Here's hoping it's the last.
The Woodlawn Vase is almost a yard high and is just shy of 30 pounds. Tiffany made it for $1,500 in 1860 and it was appraised in 1983 at $1 million. But NBC says its value is in excess of $4 million, and who are we to argue with the network that gives us "30 Rock" in addition to the Triple Crown?
The Woodlawn Vase has everything. Miniature racing saddles and jockey hats decorate the bottom. A stately horse and jockey perched on top.
A fan of fine print? The vase has the rules of the original 1861 Kentucky race for which it is named on two tiny signs at the base.
"You could spend quite a bit of time with it," says David Curry, a senior curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the Woodlawn Vase sits on display when it's not at Pimlico. "It invites scrutiny."
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