by Chris, the Impaler - 05/18/05
A few months before the out break of the Civil War in 1861 and the first Battle of Bull Run/first Battle of Manassas, around the time South Carolina succeeded from the Union, Maryland had the first run for the Woodlawn Vase, what is now, 144 years later, the trophy for the Preakness Stakes.
A memorable story is told that during the Civil War, the Woodlawn Vase was buried to protect it from Union troops. While the first Preakness Stakes was run in 1873 (won by 11-1 long shot Survivor), the Woodlawn Vase was not given to the winner of the Preakness until Kalitan won in 1917 and it has been awarded to the winner ever since.
Pimlico Race Track, however, was the brainchild of sportsmen who wanted to remember a dinner party (must have had some strippers, tons of the finest Virginia snuff and ice buckets of Champagne) with a horse race to end all horse races. A two-mile stakes race was proposed by Maryland Governor Oden Bowie, businessman Milton H. Sanford and New York's John Hunter.
The purse for the "Dinner Stakes" (which would later become the Dixie Stakes, America's eighth oldest stakes race) was $15,000 and Governor Bowie promised to build the track. Whether steak was served at the memorable dinner it is unclear, but for history's sake, it is auspicious that they did not name the race after a popular smelly cheese of the day, Limburger. The track was christened Pimlico after the name of the area in colonial times. However, it quickly became known as "old Hilltop" due to the rise in the infield that was the favorite spot to watch races.
Located at 5201 Park Heights Ave., Bucolic Pimlico Race Track officially opened in October of 1870 on 70 acres (now it has sprawled to 140 acres) overlooking Jones Falls in Baltimore, Maryland. The winner of the inaugural race was Milton Stanford's Preakness (out of a seven horse field). By 1873 Pimlico introduced another stakes race for three year olds, Gov. Bowie decided to name the race after the first winner at Pimlico. Thus the Preakness Stakes were born.
Pimlico is the second oldest thoroughbred racetrack in the United States next to Saratoga, which opened in 1864. However, racing existed around the world and in this country long before either of these institutions opened their doors.
It is believed that horse racing, as we know it today, originated in the 12th Century at the end of the Crusades. However, these early races involved only two horses competing against each other. Between the 12th and 16th Century, breeding Arab stallions with English mares produced horses that had both endurance and speed. Bets between noblemen became popular leisure time activity, hence derives the name, the Sport of Kings.
Horseracing was brought to the new world and enjoyed immense popularity by the Colonists and by 1890, 314 tracks operated (generally a decentralized lot of crooked owners, trainers and jockeys) across the country. However, by 1900 rampant anti-gambling furor swept the country and most states banned horse racing entirely. By 1908 race tracks in the United States numbered just 25, among them Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont; the three jewels in the Triple Crown.
Coincidently, or not, 1908 was the same year that pari-mutuel betting was introduced at the Kentucky Derby. This would change the sport forever as states adopted this "legalized" form of betting in exchange for a percentage of the profits.
By far, the Triple Crown races are the most popular horse races in America. Last year, for instance, Pimlico logged 112,668 attendees, a record number in Preakness history, and the race enjoyed wide exposure by media, including all-day television broadcasts from the historic racetrack. It is said that the Preakness revenues from one day at Pimlico enable the racetrack to keep operational for the other 364 days a year.
Despite the importance of the Preakness Stakes to Pimlico, the Preakness has not always been run at Pimlico. In 1889 the racing industry changed and the Preakness Stakes moved to Morris Park in Bronx, NY. Then took three years off and was moved to Gravesend in Brooklyn, New York in 1894 until it returned to Pimlico in 1909 (after pari-mutuel wagering had been legalized) when Effendi won the Preakness (which was set at the shortest recorded distance of one mile).
With pari-mutuel wagering, odds are updated continuously until post time. Once the wagering windows are closed, a fixed percentage (14 percent-25 percent) of the total amount wagered is taken out for track operating expenses, racing purses, and state and local taxes. Whatever money remains is paid out on a sliding scale. Today the main reason horse racing still exists is due to pari-mutuel wagering.
It was not until after the end of World War I, in 1919, that the Preakness would host it's first eventual Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton who won the then mile and an eighth race.
Over the years, the Preakness has not always been run at 1-3/16 miles. In fact it has been set at seven different distances. This was due to the instability of the race in the early years, uncertainty about the future of horse racing in general, and then the age of horses and purses in the later years. Initially, the Preakness distance of 1-½ miles at Pimlico was shortened to a 1-¼ miles in 1889, moved back to 1-½ miles in 1890.
In 1894 the Preakness ran at Gravesend in Brooklyn and was set at a 1-1/16 but was shortened even more to 1 mile and 70 yards from 1901-1907. Upon its return to Pimlico, the Preakness was lengthened to a 1 1/16 miles and then shortened once again to 1 mile for the 1909 and 1910. In 1911, it was brought back to 1 1/8 miles and finally, in 1925, the current distance of 1 3/16 miles was set where it has remained as much of a fixture as Black Eyed Susan's and the Woodlawn Vase.
After the exciting, improbable long shot win by Giacomo at the Kentucky Derby, looking back at the historic winners at the Preakness, we see that the biggest long shot to win the Preakness was Master Derby in 1975 who paid $48.05 on a $2 bet. It took twenty-six years for a favorite, Smarty Jones; to win the Preakness in 2004 before him was favorite Spectacular Bid in 1979!
Smarty Jones' time of 1:55:59 was far from a track record. The Pimlico 1-3/16 miles track record is 1:53:13 and is shared by Tank's Prospect (1985) and Louis Quatorze (1996). We'd be surprised to see any horse break this record this year.
When the track is sloppy at Pimlico an upset occurs. Deputed Testimony, paid $31.00 in 1983 as Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo ran sixth and in 1972, Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge was fourth to Bee Bee Bee, who returned $39.40. This Saturday the weather is expected to be sunny with a 20 percent chance of rain so a sloppy track does not seem likely.
However, many winners in Preakness history have been counted among the greatest horses in modern thoroughbred history including Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (1977), Secretariat (1973), Tim Tam (1958), Citation (1948), Assault (1946), Count Fleet (1943), Whirlaway (1941), War Admiral (1937), Omaha (1935), Gallant Fox (1930), Man O' War (1920), Sir Barton (1919), and more.
And like bookends to the Preakness' venerable history, Survivor's hold on the largest margin of victory in 1873, ten lengths, survived until 2004 when Smarty Jones won the Preakness Stakes and the Woodlawn Vase by an astounding 11.5 lengths.
Which horse will be the next to sip from the Woodlawn Vase? Could a horse this year break the Triple Crown drought? Even if they do not let us hope the Woodlawn Vase is never buried again.