RACE WITH A VENERABLE LINEAGE The sponsor, Md. Jockey Club, is 250 years old


Even a Preakness veteran who thinks he has seen it all at a track would have a hard time recognizing the spectacle: landed gentry, dressed in their finest, entering their horses in a three-heat match race over a winding, four-mile course.

The winner's purse consists of a few pounds of tobacco or a couple of silver spoons. Instead of a 10-race card, the meets would stretch out for a week and culminate in an elegant ball.

It's not as far afield from the Preakness as it seems. The Maryland Jockey Club, corporate owner of Pimlico, started out that way in Annapolis 250 years ago this month. It awarded its first trophy, the Annapolis Subscription Plate, on May 4, 1743.

Today it is believed to be the oldest sporting organization in the United States and one of the state's oldest organizations of any kind.

"Even in the beginning, when horses were beasts of burden, people raced them. It was a natural thing to see if your horse is faster than mine," said Chris Scherf of the Maryland-based Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Other states were also active in racing during colonial times, but it flourished here sooner than elsewhere, he said. That was largely a function of culture: The founders of Maryland had close ties to English aristocracy fond of the fledgling sport, he said.

Horse racing, of course, dates back to Roman chariot races. But thoroughbred racing started in England, after nimble, lightly armed "cavaliers" replaced plodding knights in armor and proved the value of breeding horses for speed. All thoroughbreds trace their lineage to three Middle Eastern stallions brought to England in the 17th century and bred with native horses.

"Maryland and Virginia were the hotbeds of racing from the beginning. They were known as the 'Cavalier Colonies,' " Scherf said.

Other states were also active. South Carolina claims the first jockey club, the organizations that organized meets, but it didn't survive. There was also a Williamsburg, Va., Jockey Club, founded in 1693 by James Blair, who, when not playing the ponies, was setting up the College of William & Mary.

Outside of Virginia and Maryland, there was often hostility to racing. New England was governed by Puritans who frowned upon gambling. Ditto the Quakers of Pennsylvania. New York's founding Dutch colonists were also inhospitable to the sport, although it caught on there after English settlers moved in in the 1600s. The first U.S. track was built on Long Island in 1655.

There are references to racing in Maryland dating back to 1672. Among the early Maryland racing sites were Chestertown, Marlborough, Joppa and Elkridge.

"Annapolis probably had the best social setting and was the grandest racing meet," said Ed Bowen, the author of several books on racing.

It attracted the rich and famous of the time, including George Washington, who, by his own admission, was a "consistent and persistent loser."

Washington's diary reflects a visit to the Maryland Jockey Club races in 1762, when he was serving with the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War. A page of the diary, a reproduction of which hangs in the Pimlico board room, shows his losses at the track were offset by winnings in a card game.

He also attended races in 1771, 1772 and 1773, and there is some evidence he may have served as a steward.

Wars were not kind to the race. Records show a fall meet scheduled to begin in 1775 was postponed on the recommendation of the Continental Congress because of the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Racing resumed in 1782, but was interrupted by the Civil War, because the army needed the horses.

By 1830, Baltimore had grown in importance, and racing was shifted to a course on Old Frederick Road. President Andrew Jackson joined the Maryland Jockey Club, racing his White House stable. A letter of his, accepting membership, is on display in the Pimlico board room.

In 1868, Maryland Gov. Oden Bowie and others hatched the idea of a major stakes race at a new track he promised to open outside Baltimore. The losers would play host to the winners at a dinner, hence the name "Dinner Party Stakes."

The result was Pimlico, which opened in 1870. The winner of the Dinner Party Stakes? A colt named Preakness. A race in his honor was begun in 1873 and run nearly every year -- including a few times when a fire at Pimlico shifted it to New York.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad