On a late summer evening in 1868, an agreement among
sportsmen to stage a special race to commemorate a memorable
occasion became the foundation for the middle jewel of racing's
Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.
Governor Oden Bowie of Maryland, a horsemen and racing
entrepreneur, was among the distinguished roster of guests at an
elegant dinner party after the races at the Union Hall Hotel in
Saratoga given by Milton H. Sanford, who had gained much of his
wealth selling blankets during the Civil War. John Hunter of New
York proposed that the feast be commemorated by a stake race to
be run in the fall of 1870 for three-year old colts and fillies
at two miles, to be known as the Dinner Party Stakes in honor of
the evening. Bowie electrified the gathering by suggesting a
purse of $15,000, a staggering sum in those days.
Governor Bowie requested that the Dinner Party Stakes be run
in Maryland, and pledged to build a new racetrack to host it.
Hence, the idea for Pimlico Race Course was born, and in the
fall of 1870, the inaugural Dinner Party Stakes was run on
Pimlico's opening. Won by Sanford's Preakness, one of only two
male entrants in the seven horse field, the massive bay colt was
a first time starter. His jockey, Billy Hayward, followed a
unique tradition of the day after the race: a wire was stretched
across the track from the judges' stand with a small silk bag
filled with gold pieces. When the race was over, the winning
jockey untied the string holding the bag and claimed the money.
It is believed this custom brought about the modern day "wire"
at the finish line, and the designation of "purse" money.
Bowie's Dinner Party Stakes would later be run at Pimlico as
the Dixie Handicap (now known as the "Dixie"), and hold the
honor of being the 8th oldest stakes race in America.
Two years before the Kentucky Derby would appear, Pimlico was
busy introducing its new stakes race for three-year olds, the
Preakness, during its first-ever spring race meet in 1873.
Governor Bowie had named the mile and one-half race in honor of
Dinner Party Stakes - winner, Preakness.
The scene was set for the first Preakness Stakes on Tuesday,
May 27, a warm and muggy spring day at Pimlico. The crowd, well
aware of Bowie's accomplishments in putting Baltimore on the
national Thoroughbred map, swelled to 12,000. The violet-painted
stands and the Victorian Clubhouse, which survived until a fire
destroyed it in 1966, were decorated with the Maryland Jockey
Club blue and white pennants. Entertainment was provided by
Itzel's Fifth Regiment Band, which played operatic airs from
Martha and Il Trovatore, and popular tunes of the day.
The first Preakness drew seven starters, but it was John
Chamberlain's three-year old, Survivor, who galloped home easily
by ten lengths to a purse of $2,050 to this day, the largest
Preakness margin of victory.
The new Preakness, off to a great start, prospered for the
next 17 years. The early Preakness Stakes attracted quality
horses and good crowds; however, in 1889, due to changes in the
racing industry, the Preakness and Pimlico galloped to a halt.
In 1890, the Preakness was run at Morris Park in New York. The
Maryland Jockey Club continued to be involved in racing by
presenting some steeplechasing and even trotting races at
Pimlico, but the Preakness did not return home to Pimlico until
1909. During this interval, the Preakness was run for 15 years
at the Gravesend track in Brooklyn, New York. These 15 so-called
"lost" Preaknesses were officially enrolled in the race history
of the classic in 1948; the 1890 Preakness was added in the
Several traditions enjoyed today are attributed to the
spontaneity of the 1909 Preakness renewal. For example, the
musical rendering of "Maryland My Maryland" began when a bugler,
moved by the spirit of the day, began playing Maryland's
historic state song. The rest of the band, inspired by the
music, joined in and the crowd reacted enthusiastically. In
addition, Preakness 1909 also inaugurated the concept of the
"painting of the colors" atop the weather vane, to honor the
From that day in 1909, the Preakness has run without a break
each year at Pimlico, steadily growing in popularity and purse
value. It was once said that having the Preakness in Baltimore
is like being able to schedule the World Series or Super Bowl
every year. The Preakness Stakes has remained throughout
history a true test of a horse's ability and class, a race where
remarkable horses meet one another other in a great classic.
The phrase "Triple Crown" was not coined until the 1930's,
but it is this race on the third Saturday in May where the best
of the Derby horses gather to see if there will be that window
of opportunity for a Triple Crown prospect. Much goes on during
this colorful time at Pimlico, but it has always been the horse
that draws the fans. As poet Ogden Nash wrote: "The Derby is a
race of aristocratic sleekness, for horses of birth to prove
their worth to run in the Preakness."