The `lost' Preaknesses

Pimlico's biggest race has an out-of-state history, too. Few are aware it was run 16 times in New York.


A century ago this year, a filly named Whimsical pulled away in the stretch on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to win the Preakness Stakes - at Gravesend Race Track in Brooklyn, N.Y.

That's right, New York.

The 1906 running of Baltimore's signature sports event was one of 16 staged far from the city between 1890 and 1908, when the current doomsday scenario for Maryland racing - the Preakness' departure - was a reality.

But the race's profile was so low then, before today's popular Triple Crown format was established, that few Marylanders noticed it was gone. And no one, it seemed, knew where it had gone; the Maryland Jockey Club, which presided over Maryland racing then and now, didn't realize until the 1940s that the by-then-growing chronicle of Preakness history included a lengthy chapter set in New York.

"It sounds almost impossible now. How could you lose 16 Preaknesses? But that's what happened," said Joe Kelly, a Pimlico historian who covered racing for The Sun when most of the "lost Preaknesses" were found in 1948.

That year, according to The Preakness: A History, a 1975 book by Joseph J. Challmes, longtime Pimlico publicist David Woods acted on a tip, whose source he never revealed, and found the results of 15 New York Preaknesses in old, musty racing journals shelved in Pimlico's library, which was in the cupola of the track's Victorian clubhouse.

After using New York newspapers to confirm the races did occur, Woods went public with the surprising news that the Preakness, which had been run at Pimlico from 1873 to 1889 and 1909 to 1947, also had been held annually from 1894 to 1908 at Gravesend, a small track near Coney Island.

"Dave was a keen historian with a real dedication to the sport," Kelly said of Woods, who later worked for The Sun and died in 1982. "He was a close ally of [former Pimlico owner] Alfred Vanderbilt's, and he spent a lot of time researching various aspects of the track's history."

In 1965, Woods' successor as the track's publicity director, Joe Hickey, used the same library to uncover another "lost" New York Preakness - an 1890 running at Morris Park in Manhattan.

"I started going up [to the cupola library] in the heat of the [1965] summer. There was no air conditioning; it had to be 115 degrees up there," recalled Hickey, who later managed Winfields Farm in Cecil County and is now retired on the Eastern Shore. "I was poring over these dusty, old books, sweat rolling down my forehead. David Woods had done it the same way."

Now an annual spectacle that attracts more than 100,000 spectators to Pimlico on the third Saturday in May, the Preakness is as synonymous with Baltimore as crab cakes or the Orioles. If Magna, the Canadian corporation that owns Maryland's tracks, ever moved the race, citing a downturn in local racing, it would be seen as a disaster along the lines of the football Colts' departure in 1984.

That was far from the case when the race left Baltimore for New York after the 1889 running.

After a rousing start in the 1870s, Maryland racing had shriveled away. The state had been one of the first to start racing again after the Civil War, and had benefited from the lack of competition, but by the late 1880s, states such as New York, New Jersey and Kentucky had surpassed it. With the regional economy in a tailspin, the public seemingly no longer cared. A sparse crowd attended the 1888 Preakness. The 1889 running featured just two horses.

In August 1889, Maryland Jockey Club president Oden Bowie, a former governor of the state, suspended operations.

"It was pretty simple. They were broke," Kelly said. "The organization did continue to meet, however, which was important later."

Not today's race

How Morris Park acquired the Preakness is unknown, but it was run on June 10, 1890, under the auspices of the New York Jockey Club. The distance was 1 1/2 miles - 5/16 of a mile longer than today's standard distance of 1 3/16 miles - and the event was open to older horses, unlike today's event, which is limited to 3-year-olds.

"That [1890] Preakness was the same as today's Preakness in name only," said Tom Gilcoyne, a historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The 1890 Preakness was won by a 5-year-old named Montague. And incredible as it sounds now, the Belmont Stakes was held on the same day at the same track.

"Racing was a vastly different sport then," Kelly said.

It wasn't until 1930 that the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont were aligned into the series that Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton first called the Triple Crown.

After the 1890 Preakness, the race disappeared for three years, then resurfaced in 1894 at Gravesend, where it was run every spring for the next 15 years. Named for the southern Brooklyn neighborhood in which it was situated, the track was owned by brothers Phil and Mike Dwyer, wealthy butchers who had become successful horse owners.

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