We have looked at the origins of the Kentucky Derby, but have not discussed the origins of the second and third jewels in the American Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. No one alive today remembers a time when the modern Triple Crown was not in place, or when its three races didn’t have a special place in racing’s Pantheon of Gods. But, that wasn’t always the case. Today we look back at the origins of the Preakness, the second jewel in the Crown.
The Preakness Stakes was founded in 1873, two years before the Derby, as the drawing card for Pimlico Race Course’s newly introduced spring racing meet. This was an age in which many horses did not compete as two-year-olds, and the idea of spring racing for three-year-olds was a new one, also capitalized upon by the creators of the Kentucky Derby two years later. In the same way that the inaugural Derby in 1875 was a publicity stunt for a new racetrack, so, too, the first running of the Preakness was a kind of publicity stunt to introduce spring racing for three- year-olds to Maryland.
The first running of the race was a mile and a half contest for three-year-olds, in which seven starters ran for a prize of $2,050, won by a bay cold named Survivor, owned by John F. Chamberlain. Survivor galloped to an easy ten-length victory, the race’s longest margin of victory until Smarty Jones won it by 11 ½ lengths in 2004.
The race was named by one of the great politicians of horse racing, former Gov. Oden Bowie, both a great Thoroughbred breeder in his own right, railroad tycoon, and Maryland governor from 1869 to 1872. In 1868, at a dinner party at Saratoga Springs, Bowie and some of his associates agreed to construct a racetrack in Maryland and to host a race in 1870 for runners owned by his dinner guests. The prize was not only a monetary bet, but the obligation that the losers host a dinner for the winner.
The result of this Saratoga dinner was the construction of Pimlico Race Course, and the introduction of its original stakes race, the Dinner Party Stakes, later known as the Dixie Stakes, which is today run as a Grade II stakes race. The first winner of the Dinner Party Stakes was a big colt named Preakness, owned by Milton Holbrook Sanford’s Preakness Stables located in Preakness, New Jersey. The official web site for the Preakness gives the Native American tribes in the area credit for developing the name:
“It all started with the Minisi, a northern New Jersey tribe of Native Americans. They called their area Pra-qua-les, meaning quail woods. After a series of spellings the name eventually evolved into Preakness.”
When Pimlico introduced spring racing in 1873, former Governor Bowie, for whom the town of Bowie, Maryland, was also named, itself home of the ill-fated Bowie Race Track (to this day I have never known anyone who knew its official name, Prince George’s Park; it was always just “Bowie”), named the inaugural race for the spring meet the “Preakness Stakes,” in honor of the first winner of his Dinner Party Stakes, the first stakes race held at Pimlico.
The racehorse Preakness had that toughness inherent in Thoroughbreds of that era. The Preakness official site lists his accomplishments: “Preakness continued to race through his eight-year-old season in America. He won the Baltimore Cup, carrying 131 pounds at age eight and also finished in a dead heat with Springbok in the 1875 Saratoga Cup at 2-1/4 miles.”
It is difficult to think of a horse running at eight years old at all these days, and the idea of his carrying 131 pounds would be unthinkable. A modern 2 ¼ mile race might be a little farfetched, too, at least in the United States.
Despite the strength of its namesake, the early years of the race were undistinguished: It ran at Pimlico through the 1889 season, then moved in 1890 to the old Morris Park Racecourse in the Bronx, New York. No Preakness was held for three years, then from 1894 through 1908, the race was held at was held at Gravesend Race Track on Coney Island, New York. In 1909 it returned to Pimlico.
The early history of the race was so undistinguished, in fact, that it was largely forgotten. On May 14, 1922, the Daily Racing Form published an article purporting to give the history of the Preakness Stakes, and dates the race only to its return to Pimlico in 1909.
“The first running of the Preakness occurred on May 12, 1909,” the Form incorrectly notes, but quickly gets to the point that the race wasn’t exactly distinguished then, either. “The race was an allowance affair, at one mile, with $2,000 and $500 in plate added. Ten horses faced starter A. B. Dade, and not one of them was better than ordinary grade.”
At that year’s Kentucky Derby, which had also not yet come into its own, by contrast, the prize was over twice as much, $4,850 for the winner, with $700 to the second finisher. The Racing Form article follows the money, concluding that Pimlico’s great increase in prize money, beginning what developed the Preakness into the serious race it had become by the 1920s.
From 1909 through 1911, the Preakness was buoyed, as was the Derby, by an influx of quality runners from New York and New Jersey, run out of the northeast by the anti-gambling elements, who had succeeded in effectively shutting down racing in these states. Its purses were at the $5,000 level through 1911, dropped to $2,500, in 1912, and hovered at that level until 1917, when the track added $5,000 to the prize money, raising it to $7,500, for the 1917 race, and then added sufficient funds for the 1918 prize money to equal $20,000.
Throughout the later 1910s and into the ’20s, the Preakness and the Derby dueled both for post position (the Preakness was often held prior to the Derby before 1931, and twice was held on the same day) and prestige. The Derby won its first big victory on the PR front in 1915, when its promoter, Col. Matt Winn, persuaded Harry Payne Whitney to bring his great filly Regret to the Derby in 1915; her win, as the first filly to win the race, was seized on by Winn to promote the Derby — particularly to women.
The Preakness fired back in 1920, though, with something the Derby could never boast: A win by the horse universally deemed the greatest runner of his — and until Secretariat, any other — age, Man O’War, who went on to win the Belmont as well, in record time, never having raced in Kentucky at all. The duel between the Derby and Preakness for supremacy in the spring continued through the 1920s, until in 1930, Gallant Fox won the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, and was universally proclaimed as having won the American Triple Crown — a phrase not popularly used until that time.
In 1931, the modern Triple Crown emerged: The promoters of the three races agreed upon the current timing of the races, with the Derby always first, the Preakness always second, and the Belmont always last. From the point forward, the fate of the Preakness was bound up with that of the Triple Crown itself, and to some degree, of the vicissitudes of Maryland racing.
Next time, we will stick with this theme a little longer, and look back at Man O’War’s dramatic victories in the Preakness and Belmont, at a time before the modern Triple Crown had emerged. In so doing, we will take a keyhole view of racing in the early ’20s, and examine the rivalry between the Preakness and Derby a bit further. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.