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The 'lost' Preaknesses

A century ago this year, a filly named Whimsical pulled away in the stretch on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to win the Preakness Stakes - at Gravesend Race Track in Brooklyn, N.Y.

That's right, New York.

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The 1906 running of Baltimore's signature sports event was one of 16 staged far from the city between 1890 and 1908, when the current doomsday scenario for Maryland racing - the Preakness' departure - was a reality.

But the race's profile was so low then, before today's popular Triple Crown format was established, that few Marylanders noticed it was gone. And no one, it seemed, knew where it had gone; the Maryland Jockey Club, which presided over Maryland racing then and now, didn't realize until the 1940s that the by-then-growing chronicle of Preakness history included a lengthy chapter set in New York.

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"It sounds almost impossible now. How could you lose 16 Preaknesses? But that's what happened," said Joe Kelly, a Pimlico historian who covered racing for The Sun when most of the "lost Preaknesses" were found in 1948.

That year, according to The Preakness: A History, a 1975 book by Joseph J. Challmes, longtime Pimlico publicist David Woods acted on a tip, whose source he never revealed, and found the results of 15 New York Preaknesses in old, musty racing journals shelved in Pimlico's library, which was in the cupola of the track's Victorian clubhouse.

After using New York newspapers to confirm the races did occur, Woods went public with the surprising news that the Preakness, which had been run at Pimlico from 1873 to 1889 and 1909 to 1947, also had been held annually from 1894 to 1908 at Gravesend, a small track near Coney Island.

"Dave was a keen historian with a real dedication to the sport," Kelly said of Woods, who later worked for The Sun and died in 1982. "He was a close ally of [former Pimlico owner] Alfred Vanderbilt's, and he spent a lot of time researching various aspects of the track's history."

In 1965, Woods' successor as the track's publicity director, Joe Hickey, used the same library to uncover another "lost" New York Preakness - an 1890 running at Morris Park in Manhattan.

"I started going up [to the cupola library] in the heat of the [1965] summer. There was no air conditioning; it had to be 115 degrees up there," recalled Hickey, who later managed Winfields Farm in Cecil County and is now retired on the Eastern Shore. "I was poring over these dusty, old books, sweat rolling down my forehead. David Woods had done it the same way."

Now an annual spectacle that attracts more than 100,000 spectators to Pimlico on the third Saturday in May, the Preakness is as synonymous with Baltimore as crab cakes or the Orioles. If Magna, the Canadian corporation that owns Maryland's tracks, ever moved the race, citing a downturn in local racing, it would be seen as a disaster along the lines of the football Colts' departure in 1984.

That was far from the case when the race left Baltimore for New York after the 1889 running.

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After a rousing start in the 1870s, Maryland racing had shriveled away. The state had been one of the first to start racing again after the Civil War, and had benefited from the lack of competition, but by the late 1880s, states such as New York, New Jersey and Kentucky had surpassed it. With the regional economy in a tailspin, the public seemingly no longer cared. A sparse crowd attended the 1888 Preakness. The 1889 running featured just two horses.

In August 1889, Maryland Jockey Club president Oden Bowie, a former governor of the state, suspended operations.

"It was pretty simple. They were broke," Kelly said. "The organization did continue to meet, however, which was important later."

Not today's race

How Morris Park acquired the Preakness is unknown, but it was run on June 10, 1890, under the auspices of the New York Jockey Club. The distance was 1 1/2 miles - 5/16 of a mile longer than today's standard distance of 1 3/16 miles - and the event was open to older horses, unlike today's event, which is limited to 3-year-olds.

"That [1890] Preakness was the same as today's Preakness in name only," said Tom Gilcoyne, a historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

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The 1890 Preakness was won by a 5-year-old named Montague. And incredible as it sounds now, the Belmont Stakes was held on the same day at the same track.

"Racing was a vastly different sport then," Kelly said.

It wasn't until 1930 that the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont were aligned into the series that Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton first called the Triple Crown.

After the 1890 Preakness, the race disappeared for three years, then resurfaced in 1894 at Gravesend, where it was run every spring for the next 15 years. Named for the southern Brooklyn neighborhood in which it was situated, the track was owned by brothers Phil and Mike Dwyer, wealthy butchers who had become successful horse owners.

"It was a workmanlike track, nothing fancy," Gilcoyne said. "There had been a trotting track on the site before, and the Dwyers refashioned it into a racing track."

Having opened in 1885 at a time when New York racing was booming, Gravesend was looking to add stakes races as support for its signature events, the Brooklyn Derby and the Great American Stakes. The Preakness was a minor addition, not a race around which a day at the track could be built.

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"It was just a race they used to help fill out a day's card," Gilcoyne said.

In 1894, it was held on a Thursday afternoon and limited to 3-year-old "maidens," horses who had never won. In 1895, it was limited to 3-year-olds who had never won a race worth more than $1,000, a low figure. In 1897, half the field of 14 was scratched before the race because of rain. Attendance was estimated at 2,000.

Only four horses ran in the 1898 race, and only three entered in 1899. But the 1899 race was the feature of the Memorial Day card, and the winner was a respected horse named Half Time. His victory gave the Preakness a somewhat higher profile. Ten-horse fields became more commonplace in the early 1900s, and attendance rose to more than 15,000 fans in 1904.

But the race was still mostly limited to marginal 3-year-olds; it was far from the classic it would become. In perhaps the low point of Preakness history, the 1908 running was an allowance race, a lower-caliber event.

"That surprised me," Gilcoyne said. "I'm kind of surprised [the Maryland Jockey Club] uses it historically. But it was indeed a race called the Preakness."

Pool cues return

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When a bitter war erupted in the early 1900s between New York's racetrack owners and bookmakers running illegal, off-site betting parlors out of poolrooms, a chain of events that would lead to the Preakness' return to Baltimore was set in motion.

The poolrooms were slick outfits that depended on sly track-side informants to pass along race results as soon as horses crossed the finish line. Their business was cutting deeply into attendance and on-site betting totals, and the tracks sought to put the poolrooms out of business. A classic game of cops and robbers ensued with gumshoes chasing informants around racetracks, but the informants couldn't be stopped and the poolrooms flourished.

Exasperated, New York's state government finally banned betting throughout the state in June 1908. Tracks immediately began dumping races to cut costs and try to survive.

According to Challmes' book, officials from the Maryland Jockey Club, which had resumed a small-scale thoroughbred racing schedule in 1904, came to New York several times in early 1909 and arranged for the Preakness to return to its birthplace. (Gravesend went out of business in 1910, and there was virtually no racing anywhere in New York in 1911 and 1912. The sport returned in 1913 when a law was passed allowing betting without bookmakers.)

On March 19, 1909, Maryland Jockey Club secretary William Riggs announced the Preakness was returning to Pimlico as the centerpiece of the track's spring meeting. The club would contribute $2,000 to the purse to enhance the race's stature.

On May 12, the Preakness was run at Pimlico for the first time in two decades. Attendance at the Wednesday afternoon event wasn't announced, but a Sun photo of the horses entering the stretch showed hundreds of fans on the apron between the grandstand and track railing, so historians assume the crowd was sizable.

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The race was no longer an allowance, and one of New York's best stables shipped in a horse named Fashion Plate to try to win. He was the 7-5 favorite, but a 20-1 shot named Effendi beat him.

The Preakness was home again.

Missing history

The race's New York chapter came to light later only because the Triple Crown series rose to prominence, fueling the public's curiosity about the history of the three spring classics. It seems inconceivable today that so much of an important race's history could be lost for so long, but much of the MJC's paperwork and records were lost in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and the 1966 Pimlico clubhouse fire.

"All of the books I'd used went up in flames [in 1966]. And they were rare volumes, racing journals going back more than a century," Hickey said.

Hickey had planned to continue digging for lost Preaknesses, specifically runnings in 1891, 1892 and 1893, when, according to the current record, the race wasn't held. If those three runnings were added, the Preakness would have two more than the Kentucky Derby, which started in 1875 and has since been held every year without interruption.

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As it stands now, the Derby has one more running than the Preakness.

Hickey believes Preaknesses were run somewhere in New York in those remaining "lost" years.

"If someone dug long enough into the right places, I'm betting they'd find Preaknesses," Hickey said. "But we'll probably never know for sure."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

Preakness winners

1873 Survivor

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1874 Culpepper

1875 Tom Ochiltree

1876 Shirley

1877 Cloverbrook

1878 Duke of Magenta

1879 Harold

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1880 Grenada

1881 Saunterer

1882 Vanguard

1883 Jacobus

1884 Knight of Ellerslie

1885 Tecumseh

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1886 The Bard

1887 Dunboyne

1888 Refund

1889 Buddhist

1890 Montague

1891-93 No races

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1894 Assignee

1895 Belmar

1896 Margrave

1897 Paul Kauvar

1898 Sly Fox

1899 Half Time

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1900 Hindus

1901 The Parader

1902 Old England

1903 Flocarline

1904 Bryn Mawr

1905 Cairngorm

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1906 Whimsical

1907 Don Enrique

1908 Royal Tourist

1909 Effendi

1910 Layminster

1911 Watervale

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1912 Colonel Holloway

1913 Buskin

1914 Holiday

1915 Rhine Maiden

1916 Damrosch

1917 Kalitan

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1918 War Cloud and Jack Hare Jr.

1919 Sir Barton

1920 Man o' War

1921 Broomspun

1922 Pillory

1923 Vigil

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1924 Nellie Morse

1925 Coventry

1926 Display

1927 Bostonian

1928 Victorian

1929 Dr. Freeland

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1930 Gallant Fox

1931 Mate

1932 Burgoo King

1933 Head Play

1934 High Quest

1935 Omaha

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1936 Bold Venture

1937 War Admiral

1938 Dauber

1939 Challedon

1940 Bimelech

1941 Whirlaway

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1942 Alsab

1943 Count Fleet

1944 Pensive

1945 Polynesian

1946 Assault

1947 Faultless

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1948 Citation

1949 Capot

1950 Hill Prince

1951 Bold

1952 Blue Man

1953 Native Dancer

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1954 Hasty Road

1955 Nashua

1956 Fabius

1957 Bold Ruler

1958 Tim Tam

1959 Royal Orbit

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1960 Bally Ache

1961 Carry Back

1962 Greek Money

1963 Candy Spots

1964 Northern Dancer

1965 Tom Rolfe

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1966 Kauai King

1967 Damascus

1968 Forward Pass

1969 Majestic Prince

1970 Personality

1971 Canonero II

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1972 Bee Bee Bee

1973 Secretariat

1974 Little Current

1975 Master Derby

1976 Elocutionist

1977 Seattle Slew

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1978 Affirmed

1979 Spectacular Bid

1980 Codex

1981 Pleasant Colony

1982 Aloma's Ruler

1983 Deputed Testamony

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1984 Gate Dancer

1985 Tank's Prospect

1986 Snow Chief

1987 Alysheba

1988 Risen Star

1989 Sunday Silence

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1990 Summer Squall

1991 Hansel

1992 Pine Bluff

1993 Prairie Bayou

1994 Tabasco Cat

1995 Timber Country

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1996 Louis Quatorze

1997 Silver Charm

1998 Real Quiet

1999 Charismatic

2000 Red Bullet

2001 Point Given

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2002 War Emblem

2003 Funny Cide

2004 Smarty Jones

2005 Afleet Alex


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