Namesake of a famous race

Way Back When

Tradition: Preakness, huge and muscular, looked more suited to pulling a cart than winning a race. But win he did.

May 15, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Derby is a race

of aristocratic sleekness,

For horses of birth to

prove their worth

To run in the Preakness.

-- Ogden Nash

The Preakness Stakes, which will be run at Pimlico Race Course today, can't help but evoke the specter of great horses. There have been many: Sir Barton, Citation, Whirlaway, Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Challedon, Count Fleet and Secretariat all conquered the challenging 1 3/16-mile course and passed into racing history.

"Inevitably, the Preakness and Derby are compared," Joseph B. Kelly, racing historian who was for many years racing editor of the now defunct Washington Star, wrote on the race's 100th anniversary in 1975.

"Both races have been distilled in a manner which only time can accomplish, but they are as different as bourbon and scotch whiskeys are to the taste. Their incongruity is involved with origin and background. ... Baltimore has left its imprint upon the race to give the classic a character and charm which set it apart from the more earthy Derby and the bland Belmont Stakes," he writes.

The late Red Smith, the legendary New York Times sports columnist, observed in 1952, "One is always struck with the contrast between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. One is a garish, untidy, splendiferous display, all flash and noise and turnout and tumult, redolent of mint and the sap of corn. The Preakness is a family gathering, smaller, quieter, more leisurely and infinitely more knowing in a horsey sense."

The origins of the Preakness date to 1867, when Oden Bowie, a future governor of Maryland and noted breeder and racer of thoroughbreds, attended a private dinner in New York City at the famed Delmonico's Restaurant where the idea for a new track in Baltimore was proposed.

The plan, thoroughly endorsed by the Maryland Jockey Club called for the building of a track in a section of Northwest Baltimore known as Pimlico.

The inaugural stakes race at the new track, the Dinner Party Stakes, now the Dixie Handicap, was held at Pimlico on Oct. 27, 1870, and the winner was Preakness, a 3-year-old colt owned by M.H. Sanford.

The horse was jokingly referred to as a "cart horse," and Sanford, it was said, never permitted his trainer to back up the horse for "fear that somebody was going to hook him up to a beer wagon," said The Sun.

Nonetheless, Preakness raced across the finish line two lengths ahead of Ecliptic, and to commemorate his horse's unexpected win, Sanford presented friends with small wooden carts.

The huge and muscular horse, which stood more than 16 hands high, seemed to have been more suited for working as a dray horse rather than a swift racer, was named after the small village of Preakness, N.J., where Sanford, a breeder and trainer maintained a stable and track.

Preakness is derived from an Indian name which can be spelled two ways, pra-qua-les or per-uku-nees, which means "young buck."

The first Preakness Stakes was run May 27, 1873, when a crowd of 12,000 jammed Pimlico Race Course to witness Survivor race across the finish line 10 lengths ahead of John Boulger, his nearest challenger.

"The weather was as fine as could be desired, and the attendance was quite as large as anyone expected on the first day, the city and counties being well-represented, though there were only a few persons from Washington, Philadelphia or New York," reported The Sun.

"The ladies graced the occasion in large numbers. In the grandstand, which was two-thirds full, more than half of the spectators were of the gentler sex, while many sat in their carriages, and at the proper time dispensed luncheon in true Maryland style, and enjoyed themselves," reported the newspaper.

In 1940, tradition was changed when the Maryland Jockey Club ordered a blanket of black-eyed Susans, Maryland's state flower, to be presented to the winner rather than the blanket of "Preakness Roses," which had previously adorned the withers of the winning horse. The first horse to sport the new blanket that year was Colonel E. R. Bradley's colt Bimelech.

And not much has changed since.

The black-eyed Susans will be there as well as thousands who will jam "Old Hilltop" today. And millions more across the country will share in the excitement of one of Maryland's premier sporting events via television.

"As the years chase each other, Baltimore and the Preakness are like the first patch of blue after a thunderstorm, a gentle spring breeze, which warms the brow," wrote Kelly.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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