Retro Baltimore: Preakness Stakes origins date to 1867 and a horse by that name

A sure sign that spring has arrived in Maryland with summer not far behind, is the annual running of the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico Race Course, and it happens for the 146th time this Saturday.

For railbirds and racing fans with long memories, the names of some of racing’s greatest horses such as Sir Barton, Citation, Whirlaway, Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Challedon, Count Fleet and Secretariat, all met the challenge and conquered the 1 3/16-mile course and went on to win the Preakness and a permanent place in racing history andthe hearts of those who love the sport.


“Inevitably, the Preakness and Derby are compared,” wrote the late Joseph B. Kelly, a notable Maryland racing historian, who was for years racing editor of the old Washington Star, on the race’s 100th anniversary in 1973.

“Both races have been distilled in a manner which only time can accomplish, but they are as different as bourbon and scotch whiskeys are to the taste. Their incongruity is involved with origin and background. … Baltimore has left its imprint upon the race to give the classic a character and a charm which set it apart from the more earthy Derby and the bland Belmont Stakes,” he wrote.


The origins of today’s Preakness date to 1867 when the portly and big-mustachioed Oden Bowie, a future Maryland governor and noted breeder and racer of thoroughbreds, was attending a private dinner at the famed Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, where over brandy and cigars, an idea for a new track in Baltimore was proposed.

The plan immediately had the backing of the Maryland Jockey Club that called for the building of a new track in Northwest Baltimore in the city’s Pimlico neighborhood.

The inaugural stakes race at the new track, the Dinner Party Stakes, now the Dixie Handicap, was held at Pimlico on Oct. 27, 1870, and the winner was Preakness, a 3-year-old colt owned by Milton Holbrook Sanford. Preakness raced across the finish line two lengths ahead of the challenger Ecliptic.

Preakness takes its name from Preakness, New Jersey, a small town in Passaic County, where Sanford, a breeder and trainer, maintained a stable and track. Others say it’s derived from the Native Americans who once inhabited the site of Sanford’s farm, and can be spelled two ways, pra-qua-les or per-uku-nees, which means “Young Buck.”

Preakness, a huge and muscular horse, which stood more than 16 hands high, was jokingly referred to as a “cart horse,” and more suitable to being a dray horse rather than a swift racer. It was said the Sanford never permitted his trainer to back up the horse for “fear that somebody was going to hook him up to a beer wagon,” reported The Baltimore Sun.

Knowing that Preakness was such a long shot, its owner didn’t even bet on him, and when he won, Sanford gifted his friends with small wooden carts.

When a new stakes race for 3-year-olds was held at Pimlico in late May 1873, before a crowd of 12,000, it was named for Preakness, the winner of the first stakes race.

Considered one of the greatest race horses in history, Secretariat broke from the gate last at Pimlico and still ran so fast that he was credited by the Daily Racing Form with the track record. He appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in advance of the Belmont Stakes.

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The crowd roared as Survivor raced across the finish line 10 lengths ahead of John Boulger, his nearest challenger, to win the first Preakness.


“The weather was as fine as could be desired, and the attendance was quite large as anyone expected on the first day, the city and counties being well-represented, though there were only a few persons from Washington, Philadelphia or New York,” reported The Sun.

“The ladies graced the occasion in large numbers. In the grandstand, which was two-thirds full, more than half of the spectators were of the gentler sex, while many sat in their carriages, and at the proper time dispensed luncheon in true Maryland style, and enjoyed themselves,” reported the newspaper.

Preakness went on to a successful racing career in the United States, but when he turned 8, Sanford in the fall of 1875 took him to England, where he won the Brighton Cup and finished third in the Goodwood Cup.

His racing days at an end, Sanford sold Preakness for stud to the Duke of Hamilton, and it was said the older both man and horse became, the more cantankerous they both became.

One day, exploding into a fit of anger, Hamilton shot the 10-year-old horse, which aroused the British public and led to reforms in laws dealing with the handling of animals. Some claim that the death of Preakness was the reason for the founding of the Royal Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but this is patently untrue since the society was established in 1824.

“As the years chase each other, Baltimore and the Preakness are like the first patch of blue after a thunderstorm, a gentle spring breeze, which warms the brow,” wrote Kelly.