As the Triple Crown season approaches, Baltimoreans fret about the future of Pimlico Race Course. The track and the Preakness Stakes are the focus of an economic and political tug-of-war. Economics and the track owner's preference tug toward closing Pimlico and relocating the Preakness to Laurel Park. Politics, history and civil rights tug toward spending $300 million to rejuvenate Pimlico, which would also spur area job growth and the revitalization of surrounding neighborhoods. Procuring that sum will be problematic.
As usual, controversy pits rich versus poor. Laurel has room for expansion and is proximate to the wealthy Washington, D.C., suburbs and Northern Virginia. Pimlico has no room for expansion and is the dilapidated centerpiece of a devastated Park Heights neighborhood that has endured decades of broken political promises for rejuvenation. Closing the track and moving the Preakness from Baltimore would carry the incendiary risk of once again headlining the widely held conviction that in America's inner cities black lives don't matter.
Clearly humanism and economic reality must dominate the negotiating table, but moving world-class horse racing from Baltimore City would also be a historical tragedy.
Pimlico was not Baltimore's first major league race track. Central Racecourse holds that distinction, and Pimlico is its progeny. Central opened in 1831 on Baltimore's western fringe and was one of the nation's elite "National Circuit" tracks until the Civil War ended racing in 1861. The April 19th, 1861, Pratt Street riots and subsequent martial law pealed the death knell for racing through the war.
But back in 1829 excitement reigned when the Maryland Jockey Club decided to move from Annapolis, where it had raced since 1743 and claimed George Washington as a regular patron. Central Racecourse in Baltimore became the club's new home track and received a charter from the U.S. Congress in 1830. The MJC elected Revolutionary War veteran Gen. Thomas M. Foreman as its first president. The land for the course was donated by William H. Freeman, who wanted the one-mile oval dirt track to be a population magnet for his ambitious development plan called Franklin Towne.
President Andrew Jackson became a member and raced his stable at Central. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited, attending a ball one evening and races the next day. He described that experience in his journal, comparing Central favorably to the Champ de Mars in France.
For 30 years Central was on the National Circuit each spring and fall, attracting future Hall of Fame horses such as Boston and Fashion. Its grand opening on Tuesday, the 25th of October, 1831, drew a crowd of 60,000. The first race was three two-mile heats for a $300 purse. Virginia Taylor, a daughter of the fabled Sir Archy, won the decisive third heat in 3 minutes and 59 seconds. That initial fall meet featured the "Great Post Stake," with all six entries being sons or daughters of legendary horses American Eclipse, Sir Archy and Sir Charles. The $4,000 purse was won by American Eclipse's daughter, a five-year-old mare named Black Maria. A life-size portrait of her graced the center of the track's ballroom for a year.
This course established Baltimore as a bona fide racing city, but most records of Central were destroyed. A June 16, 1966, Pimlico fire leveled the Maryland Jockey Club's "Old Clubhouse" containing its historic library.
After the Civil War, Gov. Oden Bowie set out to revive the Jockey Club and Baltimore's racing enthusiasm by drawing on the reputation cemented by Central Racecourse for 30 years. He attended a dinner party in 1868 in Saratoga, N.Y., and convinced friends who owned quality yearlings to bring their best 3 year olds to Baltimore in two years for a "Dinner Party Stakes Race." On Oct. 27, 1870, he had Pimlico Race Course ready to open, and that race for 3 year olds was won by a horse named Preakness. In gratitude, before leaving office, Governor Bowie established an annual stakes race named to honor that colt, and in May of 1873 the first Preakness Stakes was run.
Relocating the Preakness venue from Baltimore City would be as historically illogical as relocating the D-Day memorial from Normandy. The Preakness Stakes was born in and for Baltimore City. The town's 186-year history of top echelon horse racing should be preserved by a renaissance of Pimlico's track and urban neighborhood.
Paul H. Belz is a writer living in Baltimore. He can be reached at www.paulbelzwriting.com, where a detailed history of Central Racecourse can also be found.