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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Preakness Stakes: A 150 Year Retrospective

While at an 1868 dinner party celebration with a group of his horse-racing-enthusiast friends in Saratoga, New York to celebrate Milton H. Sanford, a Massachusetts textile milliner and horse breeder, on the occasion of his horse’s win in the fourth Saratoga Cup, then Maryland Governor, Oden Bowie, proposed staging a race two years hence for the group’s current crop of yearlings where the winner would host dinner for the losers.

When the Saratoga horse owners and the American Jockey Club tried to outbid each other for the honor of hosting the race, Governor Bowie committed to building a world-class racetrack in Baltimore to stage the event, as well as a winner’s purse of $15,000, as a compromise, giving birth to Pimlico. The name Pimlico originated from the original Englishmen who settled the area of what is now northwest Baltimore City in the mid-1600 referring to an endeared London pub named, Olde Ben Pimlico’s Tavern.

Two years later, on October 25, 1870, the first day Pimlico Racecourse opened, the group gathered for the inaugural race referred to as the Dinner Party Stakes in homage to the occasion when the idea for the contest was first agreed upon. The winner of that race was jockey Billy Hayward, riding two-year-old bay colt, Sanford’s Preakness. Incidentally, Hayward was also the winning jockey, riding Lancaster, that precipitated the celebratory dinner in Saratoga in the first place.                             

Sanford’s Preakness’ name was derived from the breeding operation of the businessman feted in Saratoga, Mr. Sanford, called Preakness Stud, which in turn refers to the community of Preakness, a section of Wayne, New Jersey, at what is today the intersection of Valley Road and Preakness Avenue in Passaic County, 16 miles west of New York City.

pimlico concept development plan
Photo credit: Maryland Stadium Authority

A year later, in 1871, Pimlico’s Dinner Party Stakes’ participants returned to Baltimore for a rematch in what was billed as the Reunion Stakes. The race returned in 1872 rebranded as the Dixie Stakes. The following year, 1873, the race was once again rebranded to its current iteration, renowned worldwide as the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel in the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horseracing. 

Although the Preakness Stakes debuted 150 years ago this year, the race has not always been run at Pimlico, and has also taken several hiatuses. In 1890, due to Maryland Jockey Club’s financial difficulties, Pimlico Racecourse did not renew the club’s lease and the running was moved to Morris Park Racecourse in Westchester County, New York, where the Maryland Jockey Club was able to arrange accommodations.  

Continued financial stressors caused the Preakness to be suspended altogether between 1891 and 1893 when no stakes were run at all. Partially regaining its financial footing, although not sufficient to return to its Baltimore home base at Pimlico, the Maryland Jockey Club staged the Preakness at Gravesend Race Track in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, from 1894 to 1908. It is unclear if continued financial instability was the reason, however, for another half-decade, from 1902 to 1907, the Preakness was run at Benning Race Track in Washington, D.C., close to where RFK Stadium is now located.

The Preakness Stakes returned to Pimlico in 1919 as the 44th running on May 14, four days after the Kentucky Derby. Ridden by Johnny Loftus, the Derby winner, Sir Barton, would become what is known as the second leg of the U.S. Triple Crown series going forward.  Since then, the Preakness has run continuously at Pimlico. 

Due to financial challenges overcome by the Maryland Jockey Club in the late 1800s and early 1900s that disrupted Preakness runs at Pimlico, this year’s race, Saturday, May 20, 2023, is the 148th running despite the inaugural run was 150 years ago. Although the Preakness is the second leg of the Triple Crown after the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Belmont Stakes in Long Island, New York, the Belmont Stakes is the oldest race, started in 1867, followed by the Preakness, 1873, and the Kentucky Derby, 1875.

In the last century and a half, the Preakness Stakes has become synonymous with Baltimore and has enjoyed a symbiotic identity relationship with Park Heights. That relationship was nearly estranged in 2019 when Pimlico Racecourse’s owners, the Stronach Group, pursued an agenda to move the Preakness to Laurel Park, its second property in a deal to acquire 51% controlling interest in the track’s former owners, the Maryland Jockey Club.

The Stronach Group attempted to abandon Pimlico with the decision to move the Preakness to Laurel.  Stronach perhaps only purchased Pimlico to abscond the Preakness brand to repurpose for Laurel in the first place, and walk away from the depressed, dilapidating Pimlico, and urban Park Heights too, as a cost of doing business.

I took this same opinion on behalf of The Baltimore Times in real-time during this actual episode when Baltimore City municipal brokers had to go to the mattresses with the Stronach Group in an April 26, 2019, editorial titled ‘Stronach Family Wants To Orphan Pimlico.’ 

The eventual deal to keep the Preakness Stakes in Park Heights required Stronach to relinquish ownership of Pimlico and retain Laurel Park. Pimlico, thus the Preakness, became under the control of the Maryland Stadium Authority.  

As part of the arrangement, the state of Maryland floated a $350 million bond issue in 2020 to cover the costs of redevelopments to both racecourses, $180 million for Pimlico and $155 million for Laurel Park.  To date, no work has commenced on either facility, and the costs to complete the projects are estimated to possibly have doubled, blamed on COVID, inflation, supply chain issues, and other excuses, putting the certainty of the Preakness’ immediate future in question once again.

Several weeks ago, Maryland State legislators were looking at a few options to resolve the stalled process, bogged down due to financial and logistical challenges. Senate Bill 720, was reauthorized, extending the sunset date (expiration) of the Maryland Horse Racing Act, the laws governing horse racing by 10 years, until 2034.

The state rescinded control of racetrack operations in Maryland from the Maryland Stadium Authority, who stepped in to facilitate the Stronach deal, and created a brand-new bureaucracy for the job, the Maryland Thoroughbred Operating Authority (MTOA), who will oversee a new Maryland Racing Operations Fund and recruit an executive administrative team for day-to-day management. MTOA’s charter is only valid for four years and one month.

Could that bunch of rich, horse-owning buddies who tried to one-up each other over cocktails at a dinner party in Saratoga, New York, have imagined how their posturing would affect the next 150 years of Baltimore history?  What a fascinating connection of dots. To the Preakness! 

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