The Preakness story began in 1873

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Two years before the Kentucky Derby would appear, Pimlico was busy introducing its new three-year-old stakes race, the Preakness, in the Spring of 1873.

Eight years after the Civil War, the Baltimore newspapers were carrying front-page stories about the first Spring Meet ever at Pimlico and the initial running of the Preakness on May 23. Pimlico, which had opened in 1870, had previously conducted all of its racing in the Fall.

The Preakness was the brainchild of Maryland Governor Oden Bowie, a sportsman and an enterprising racing entrepreneur.

Governor Bowie, whose term had ended in 1872, named the mile and a half race in honor of Preakness, an impressive colt, who had won the Dinner Party Stakes, in 1870, on the occasion of Pimlico's opening.

It was the same Bowie who had boldly guaranteed that Maryland would have a track available for the Dinner Party Stakes, which had been proposed at an 1868 Saratoga party, hosted by Milton H. Sanford. Bowie "electrified" that gathering by offering $15,000 as a purse, a staggering sum then.

With Governor Bowie's help, the Maryland Jockey Club negotiated for the acreage known as Pimlico the same year. The new course engineered by Gen. John Elliott opened as promised on October 25, 1870.

Obviously, Bowie's $15,000 purse impressed Sanford, who had gained part of his wealth by selling blankets during the Civil War. His colt Preakness was ready for Pimlico's first stakes race, beating among others Gov. Bowie's filly, My Maryland, who finished last.

But Bowie had the satisfaction of putting Baltimore on the Thoroughbred map with the Dinner Party Stakes and naming the eventual second jewel of the Triple Crown the Preakness. He also perpetuated the Dinner Party Stakes as the Dixie Handicap (now known as the Early Times Dixie), the eighth oldest stakes in America run annually at Pimlico.

So the scene was set for the first Preakness Stakes on Tuesday, May 23, 1873, a warm and muggy spring day at Pimlico. The crowd, well aware of Bowie's accomplishments, swarmed onto the grounds by buggy carriage and omnibus. One of the regrets of the day was that the projected horsecar line from Baltimore to Pikesville terminated at Druid Hill Park, about two miles south of the track. Some fans arrived via the Northern Central Railroad to the East and walked a mile uphill to the track.

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 Stakes drew seven starters for the mile and a half run. It was the second event of a three-race program. The crowd estimated at 12,000 favored former Governor Bowie's Catesby but he could do no better than fourth. John Chamberlain's 3-year old, Survivor, galloped home easily by ten lengths. To this day it is the largest Preakness margin of victory.

The new Preakness, off to a great start, prospered for the next 17 years. The span from 1878 to 1882 was known as the "Lorillard Years." George L. Lorillard won the classic for five straight years. The consecutive record still stands. George and his brother Pierre were in the fourth generations of Lorillards and shared a fortune in land and tobacco of the P. Lorillard and Co.

Suddenly, in 1889, after Buddhist had won the Preakness, Pimlico and the Maryland Jockey Club ran into rocky times. The exact causes of the decline are rather vague although competition with Bennings near Washington, D.C. might have had an effect.

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 racing at Pimlico but the Preakness did not return to the Baltimore site until 1909.

During the interval, the Preakness was run for 15 years at the Gravesend track in Brooklyn, N.Y. These 15 so-called "lost" Preaknesses were officially incorporated into the race history of the classic in 1948. The other lost Preakness, run in 1890, was added to the stakes record in the 1960s.

The Maryland Jockey Club had become strong again by 1904, gaining the acceptance of The Jockey Club. The records show that trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who was later to saddle four Preakness winners, captured the Merchants Handicap with Bartender on November 4 at Pimlico. Despite the upsurge, the Preakness was not re-established at Pimlico until May 12, 1909 when the 3-year-old Effendi recorded a front-running victory.

From that day the Preakness has been run without a break each year at Pimlico. Commander J.K. L. Ross, whose Damrosch won the 1916 Preakness, described the race as a "sleeping giant." It was quite a prediction. Two years later 26 horses entered to cause the race to be run in two divisions. The next spring Ross' colt, Sir Barton, became the first Triple Crown winner. Seventy-six years ago, Man O' War appeared in 1920, passing up the Derby to help establish the Preakness as a true American classic.

Over the years, memories have piled on memories as champion after champion made turf history in the Preakness. In the last five years the Preakness crowds have totaled nearly a half million. Undoubtedly, Commander Ross was right about the "giant."


Pimlico chronology

1743: Maryland Jockey Club founded in Annapolis.

1775-1782: Races suspended because of Revolutionary War.

1783: Maryland Jockey Club resumed, with Gov. William Paca and Charles Carroll, both signers of the Declaration of Independence, as members.

1830: MJC moved from Annapolis to Baltimore.

1870: Pimlico opened. The first stakes winner, Preakness, won the Dinner Party Stakes on Oct. 27.

1873: First running of the Preakness, won by Survivor.

1894: Fire destroyed Pimlico grandstand. Preakness was run at Gravesend in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the next 15 years before returning to Pimlico in 1909.

1919: Sir Barton won Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become first Triple Crown winner.

1938: Largest Pimlico crowd at the time (43,000) witnessed match race in which Seabiscuit beat War Admiral in the second Pimlico Special.

1947: MJC purchased 85-acre tract surrounding Pimlico from Hammond estate for about $1.3 million, and first live telecast (WMAR-TV) in Baltimore originated at Pimlico on Oct. 30.

1952: Ben and Herman Cohen bought Pimlico for $2.2 million.

1957: Victorian-style Members Clubhouse, built for Pimlico's opening in 1870, was restored in major remodeling project.

1958: Maryland legislature defeated a bill to close Pimlico and transfer dates to Laurel.

1960: Modern clubhouse opened, with dining room, theater seating, indoor paddock and jockeys quarters.

1966: On June 16, fire destroyed historic Members Clubhouse, the nation's oldest racing edifice.

1971: Grandstand remodeled, including new seats, floors and heating system.

1973: Glass-enclosed dining rooms built in clubhouse for $1.5 million.

1986: Frank De Francis, Robert and John "Tommy" Manfuso purchased Pimlico from the Cohens for more than $30 million.

1988: After spending $1 million in improvements their first year, new owners spent another $1.5 million on renovations. Corporate tents offered for first time in Preakness infield, and Preakness Special revived after 29-year hiatus. Inter-track wagering with Laurel begun.

1989: Frank De Francis died and his son, Joe, took over presidency of Pimlico and Laurel. Sports Palace opened at Pimlico.

1993: Simulcasting from out-of-state tracks and between thoroughbred and harness tracks begun. State's first off-track betting site opened near Frederick.

1998: Power outage plunged grandstand and clubhouse into darkness and stifling heat for the 123rd Preakness. A record crowd of 91,122 attended, but blackout cost the track an estimated $2 million in lost bets.

2000: Maryland legislature approved a bill to allow a state agency to float bonds to pay for improvements at Maryland tracks. The measure broke tradition by allowing twilight thoroughbred racing.

Compiled by Sun Staff

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