01 - Baltimore Firsts - Maryland Jockey Club and horse racing

Kayaking Inspired Gifts - Sales Help Support This Site

Maryland has a long tradition in horse racing. Home to the first professional sports organization, the Maryland Jockey Club, it hosts the middle jewel of racing's triple crown, the Preakness.

From the International Museum of the Horse

Race horses first came to this country with the aristocratic settlers of the southern colonies. These wealthy colonists, many of them refugees from the English Revolution, were accustomed to the pastime of racing and to the prestige of owning winning horses, and brought their best racers with them to the New World. As southern fortunes grew throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these colonists were able to begin importing examples of the new English breed, the Thoroughbred. The first Thoroughbred to reach this country was Bulle Rock, imported in 1730. From that point on, Americans set about creating their own version of the Thoroughbred, blending imported stock with their own native horses and adding strains of the short, tough, and fast American Indian ponies. Although interrupted by the American Revolution, Thoroughbred breeding in the South flourished. By 1798, the year the mighty Diomed was imported to Virginia, America had laid unshakable foundations for a strong line of Thoroughbreds that would eventually rival the best in the world.

Diomed was a racing legend in England, having won the inaugural English Derby in 1780, but the gallant horse proved himself useless in the stud barn. When he was sold to a Virginia breeder in 1798 at age 21, it was assumed that his best days were behind him. But once Diomed found himself on American soil, his problems disappeared, and over the next ten years he sired enough successful progeny to immortalize him as the father of the American Thoroughbred.

Diomed poster
This advertisement, placed in a Virginia paper, announced the arrival of Diomed, and his availability for breeding.

With Diomed, Virginia quickly established itself as the center of breeding in the new country. But while Southerners held impromptu races on any available strip of land, including village streets, American racing was born elsewhere. The first official race track in the colonies was opened by the royal governor of New York in 1665, on a clear stretch of pasture on Long Island. It was not until the 1690s that southern colonies were able to open tracks, as every available piece of cleared woodland went to the production of tobacco. As the over-planted land grew fallow, however, and became useless for the cash crop, the flat space was snatched up, and race tracks opened all over. Williamsburg became the center of southern racing, attracting the elite colonists from miles around to bring their horses together in grueling match races similar to those in England and New York.

The unique, developing culture of the post-revolution United States at the end of the eighteenth century affected racing as it did most American pastimes and habits. Northern puritans felt racing was immoral, and effectively choked its growth in New England. In the South, too, problems were brewing. The dominant Church of England, officially tolerant of racing, was no longer in power. Questions arose about the importance of a gentry sport in a newly egalitarian society. But with breeders importing new stallions to replenish stock lost in the war, and southern horse owners wealthier than ever since the 1792 appearance of Eli Whitney's cotton gin, racing, and the Thoroughbred, survived the storm.

After the temporary setbacks of the final years of the eighteenth century, the racing scene of the nineteenth century was marked by almost constant expansion. As settlers moved farther west, they took racing with them, and by 1840, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, and Louisiana all hosted racing events. The bluegrass of Kentucky and Tennessee welcomed horse breeders as they, too, moved westward. Hopeful diggers in the 1848 Gold Rush carried the Thoroughbred as far west as he would ever go in this country: to California. Racetracks in the east, meanwhile, were slowly gaining favor and were hosting more and more people from all classes, and were building grandstands and setting up rails unlike anything seen on the informal, village tracks of the west. One of the eastern tracks, Union Race Course, opened on Long Island in 1821 with a "skinned" (dirt) track. Unlike the traditional grass of English tracks, this dirt was fast, and Union became the model for future American tracks. Union Race Course was influential for another reason as well. Two years after it opened, it hosted the first of the great match races between north and south that came to characterize racing in the United States before the Civil War. Horse owners from each of the increasingly disparate sections of the country put up open challenges, offering purses to prove their horse better than any other. American Eclipse met Sir Henry that day in 1823 at the Union Race Course, and the northern-bred Eclipse won in three four-mile heats. Black Maria and Trifle went head to head in 1832, and Fashion and Boston met twice in the 1840s. The victor in those matches, northern Fashion, went on to meet Tennessee's Peytona in two matches in 1845.

Fashion vs. Peytona

After being beaten in their first match-up, Fashion edged by Peytona to win the second.

While these North versus South horse races were run at least partly in fun, and attracted more crowds than any other event in American history to that point, the real match-up between North and South, in the Civil War, brought racing to its knees. The traditional breeding centers of Virginia and the Carolinas were devastated: pasture was torn up, and horses stolen or killed in the wake of advancing armies desperate for both mounts and food. In the north, Thoroughbreds were conscripted for military duty, and tracks were closed or used as army training camps. After the war, areas of the country not as deeply marked with battle scars were the first to regroup. California racing flourished toward the end of the nineteenth century, while Kentucky and Tennessee emerged, relatively unscathed, as the new centers of American breeding. The north was able to reopen tracks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but the center of racing after 1865 rested squarely in New York State.

New York, undaunted by the horrors of Gettysburg, opened a new track in the summer of 1863 in Saratoga Springs. The success of this picturesque track encouraged a number of courses in the state after the war's conclusion. Jerome Park, opened in 1866 in New York City, became the control center of New York racing when the American Jockey Club set up headquarters there and declared their goal to "promote the improvement of horses. . . and to become an authority on racing matters." (Longrigg, 223) The famous match races were replaced by shorter dashes with large fields of horses on racing cards at Jerome Park, as everywhere in post-Civil War United States. England had switched to these short races by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and new horses imported to the United States both right before and after the Civil War were bred for this short, fast race, no longer exhibiting the traits of endurance and stoutness necessary for long matches. Just as England had done in the opening years of the century, the United States racing community founded Classic races that became the proving grounds of the truly great horses. The Kentucky Derby, the most famous of these Classics, was started in 1875; the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness Stakes had started several years before. (Editor's note: Pimlico race course, home of the Preakness Stakes was opened in 1870.)

As the nineteenth century closed, racing in the United States was preparing for huge changes to racing and to the Thoroughbred market, changes they could only guess at. Racing was becoming more corrupt every year, and by the dawn of the twentieth century was considered too dangerous for honest fans and owners. This corruption paved the way for the shut-down and reform of racing in the early years of the new century. The international racing world of the twentieth century was foreshadowed by the victory of Iroquois in the 1881 English Derby; as the first American-bred to win that august race, he signaled the importance of America in the racing world of the coming years.

Saratoga Track

A view of the historic track started in the resort community during the civil war.

United States Hotel

Saratoga Springs, whose spas and resort hotels entertained thousands of the country's elite, was an ideal location for a racetrack


By winning the English Derby, he set the stage for the success of American Thoroughbreds in the racing world of the twentieth century.

The Preakness Story - from the Maryland Jockey Club

On a late summer evening in 1868, an agreement among sportsmen to stage a special race to commemorate a memorable occasion became the foundation for the middle jewel of racing's Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.

Governor Oden Bowie of Maryland, a horsemen and racing entrepreneur, was among the distinguished roster of guests at an elegant dinner party after the races at the Union Hall Hotel in Saratoga given by Milton H. Sanford, who had gained much of his wealth selling blankets during the Civil War. John Hunter of New York proposed that the feast be commemorated by a stake race to be run in the fall of 1870 for three-year old colts and fillies at two miles, to be known as the Dinner Party Stakes in honor of the evening. Bowie electrified the gathering by suggesting a purse of $15,000, a staggering sum in those days. Governor Bowie requested that the Dinner Party Stakes be run in Maryland, and pledged to build a new racetrack to host it.

Hence, the idea for Pimlico Race Course was born, and in the fall of 1870, the inaugural Dinner Party Stakes was run on Pimlico's opening. Won by Sanford's Preakness, one of only two male entrants in the seven horse field, the massive bay colt was a first time starter. His jockey, Billy Hayward, followed a unique tradition of the day after the race: a wire was stretched across the track from the judges' stand with a small silk bag filled with gold pieces. When the race was over, the winning jockey untied the string holding the bag and claimed the money. It is believed this custom brought about the modern day "wire" at the finish line, and the designation of "purse" money. Bowie's Dinner Party Stakes would later be run at Pimlico as the Dixie Handicap (now known as the "Dixie"), and hold the honor of being the 8th oldest stakes race in America.

Two years before the Kentucky Derby would appear, Pimlico was busy introducing its new stakes race for three-year olds, the Preakness, during its first-ever spring race meet in 1873. Governor Bowie had named the mile and one-half race in honor of Dinner Party Stakes - winner, Preakness. The scene was set for the first Preakness Stakes on Tuesday, May 27, a warm and muggy spring day at Pimlico. The crowd, well aware of Bowie's accomplishments in putting Baltimore on the national Thoroughbred map, swelled to 12,000. 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 drew seven starters, but it was John Chamberlain's three-year old, Survivor, who galloped home easily by ten lengths to a purse of $2,050 to this day, the largest Preakness margin of victory.

The new Preakness, off to a great start, prospered for the next 17 years. The early Preakness Stakes attracted quality horses and good crowds; however, in 1889, due to changes in the racing industry, the Preakness and Pimlico galloped to a halt. 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 races at Pimlico, but the Preakness did not return home to Pimlico until 1909. During this interval, the Preakness was run for 15 years at the Gravesend track in Brooklyn, New York. These 15 so-called "lost" Preaknesses were officially enrolled in the race history of the classic in 1948; the 1890 Preakness was added in the 1960's.

Several traditions enjoyed today are attributed to the spontaneity of the 1909 Preakness renewal. For example, the musical rendering of "Maryland My Maryland" began when a bugler, moved by the spirit of the day, began playing Maryland's historic state song. The rest of the band, inspired by the music, joined in and the crowd reacted enthusiastically. In addition, Preakness 1909 also inaugurated the concept of the "painting of the colors" atop the weather vane, to honor the winning horse. From that day in 1909, the Preakness has run without a break each year at Pimlico, steadily growing in popularity and purse value. It was once said that having the Preakness in Baltimore is like being able to schedule the World Series or Super Bowl every year.

The Preakness Stakes has remained throughout history a true test of a horse's ability and class, a race where remarkable horses meet one another other in a great classic. The phrase "Triple Crown" was not coined until the 1930's, but it is this race on the third Saturday in May where the best of the Derby horses gather to see if there will be that window of opportunity for a Triple Crown prospect. Much goes on during this colorful time at Pimlico, but it has always been the horse that draws the fans. As poet Ogden Nash wrote: "The Derby is a race of aristocratic sleekness, for horses of birth to prove their worth to run in the Preakness."

Pimlico, A National Treasure

Venerable Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, first opened its doors on October 25, 1870, making it the second oldest racetrack in the nation behind Saratoga, which debuted in 1864 in upstate New York.

Engineered by General John Ellicott, Pimlico has played host to racing icons for over a century, where Baltimoreans have seen the likes of legendary horses such as Man O' War, Sir Barton, Sea Biscuit, War Admiral, Citation, Secretariat, Cigar and Silver Charm thunder down the stretch in thrilling and memorable competition.

Constructed on 70 acres overlooking the Jones Falls, the Maryland Jockey Club purchased the land for $23,500, and built the racetrack for $25,000 after Maryland's Governor at the time, Oden Bowie, suggested the interesting proposition during a dinner party in Saratoga, New York in 1868. Bowie and his friends, prominent racing figures, had agreed to run a race in two years commemorating the evening, for horses that were yearlings at the time. The winner would have to host the losers for dinner. Both Saratoga and the American Jockey Club made bids for the event, but Governor Bowie pledged he would build a model racetrack in his home state if the race were to be run in Baltimore. Thus, Pimlico was built. "Pimlico" was the name given the area by English settlers in Colonial times, although the "Pemblicoe" spelling appeared on the original settlement charter granted to a group of Englishmen in 1669. The colonists hailed from an area near London, and harbored memories of a famous landmark "Olde Ben Pimlico's Tavern."

On a typical race day in the 1800's, Baltimoreans in all sorts of horse-drawn carriages paraded out through Druid Hill Park, then by Green Spring Valley Road to the Course. Afterwards, in the early days, a spur was built from the Western Maryland Railroad at Arlington direct to the grandstand, for convenience. The racetrack soon became affectionately known as "Old Hilltop", after a small rise in the infield that became a favorite gathering place for trainers and race enthusiasts to view the contestants close-up, and vigorously cheer on their favorites.

The infield was always a fashionable rendezvous, where in days gone by the four-in-hands, "spikes", tandems, pairs and singles were parked and lively guests congregated between the races for a champagne lunch. This custom continues today in the Corporate Village at Preakness, where over 5,000 people representing many major corporations in the Mid-Atlantic region gather in a 21st century version of yesteryear's "garden party". Over 60,000 revelers crowd additional areas of the infield to celebrate Preakness Day. Regrettably, though the famous moniker remains today, the noteable infield "hill" was removed in April 1938, ostensibly for obscuring track-level vision of the racetrack backstretch, which appeared to pose a problem for movie and television cameras in the infant days of filming races.

Despite a brief hiatus from flat racing between 1889 and 1904 - when the Preakness and Dixie were run at other tracks, and "outlaw" race meets sprung up around Maryland - Pimlico has conducted racing each year since its revival in 1904. During this interim period, steeplechase enthusiasts kept racing alive, and even became Maryland Jockey Club members upon Pimlico's re-emergence. In 1904, racing at Pimlico ignited unprecedented recognition and interest from the public and newspapers alike. Race charts appeared, quite similar to modern-day style, and for the first time Baltimore readers found the news accounts more than mere social reports. Racing in Pimlico even survived a 1910 anti-gambling movement that swept the country, prohibiting the sport everywhere, except in Maryland and Kentucky. Colonel Matt Winn of Churchill Downs is alleged to have credited Pimlico's Billy Riggs as the savior of eastern racing at this time. It was Riggs' use of the less-sinful "French Pools", or pari-mutuel machines, in 1913 as opposed to the controversial bookmakers and their blackboards, that preserved racing at Pimlico during this turbulent time in racing. A new era was born at Pimlico, which later became the first racetrack in the country to utilize an electric starting gate.

Pimlico today welcomes racegoers arriving by car, limousine, and even helicopter in the year 2000, as graciously as those who visited when "Old Hilltop" was reached primarily by horse-drawn vehicle, nearly 130 years ago. During its rich history, the racetrack has enjoyed being the only track in the United States to be honored by the adjournment of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first and only time in history in 1877 to watch a race between Parole, Ten Broeck and Tom Ochiltree. The race became known as "The Great Race", and a reproduction of its finish is immortalized as a Pimlico trademark, adorning the clubhouse as a signal to all entering that Pimlico is a place where legends will endure forever. En route to becoming a true national treasure, Pimlico has earned its patina of age, weathering small and major wars, recessions, depressions - including the Great Depression of the 1930's - fires, storms … and the simple passage of time. Its vitality has spanned many an era, representing a time and a society from two different centuries.

More than 50 years ago, the youthful president of the Maryland Jockey Club, Alfred G. Vanderbilt, made a pertinent observation that remains today, as Pimlico readies to make its mark on yet another century: "Pimlico is more than a dirt track bounded by four streets. It is an accepted American institution, devoted to the best interests of a great sport, graced by time, respected for its honorable past."

(Editor's note: The silver trophy of the Preakness Stakes was made by Samuel Kirk and Sons as were the replicas presented to the winners at least until 1998 when the company was sold to Brown Forman and production of silverware at the Baltimore plant was discontinued.)




SeaKayak Chesapeake bay makes no representations and extends no warranties of any type as to the accuracy or completeness of any information or content on this website.This website is for informational purposes only. All of the information provided on this website is provided "AS-IS" and with NO WARRANTIES. No express or implied warranties of any type, including for example implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose, are made with respect to the information, or any use of the information, on this site.

Maps and map related products available on this website, including but not limited to imagery, data, and data sources are hereby specifically identified as being unsuitable for use in navigation. By using any of these products or services, you have agreed to these terms, whether or not the map or any other use is labeled “Not for Navigation”.

Copyright on original material by Sea Kayak Chesapeake Bay TM 2001 through 2021. All rights reserved.