Pimlico Race Course, the Preakness Stakes, and Maryland Equestrian Culture

Updated on March 25, 2020
harrynielsen profile image

Harry is a longtime horseracing fan who also writes about history, music, and science.

The Preakness Stakes is the second leg of the prestigious Triple Crown races.
The Preakness Stakes is the second leg of the prestigious Triple Crown races. | Source

How Did Pimlico Race Course Get Its Name?

Pimlico Race Course, as it is officially called, received its name from the northwest section of Baltimore, where it was built. This area was originally settled by immigrants from London, who named the area for a fashionable section of London Town located within the smaller city of New Westminster. More precisely, there was a prominent man in this section of London named Ben Pimlico, and he ran a popular drinking establishment called Olde Ben Pimlico's Tavern. Olde Ben must've been quite a colorful character, for he is survived by a section of London and a well-known American racetrack that now bear his name.

The winner of the 2017 Preakness Stakes bears a coat of Black-eyed Susans, the Maryland state flower.
The winner of the 2017 Preakness Stakes bears a coat of Black-eyed Susans, the Maryland state flower. | Source

The History of the Pimlico Track

The Pimlico Race Course is the second-oldest horse racing track in the country, exceeded only by Saratoga in upstate New York. The Pimlico track opened in 1870, at first hosting only a few races a year, but quickly grew as Baltimoreans took a liking to the well-planned racing venue. Instrumental in the creation of Pimlico was the Maryland Jockey Club, which raised the money to buy the land and put up the facilities for the clubhouse, stands, and track.

Originally formed in 1743 in Annapolis to encourage horse racing in the Maryland Colony, the Jockey Club gave way to the Pimlico group once the track was opened. Since then, Pimlico has been the sole operator of the race track, while the Jockey Club continues in its efforts to support horse racing. By the way, not all members of this club came from Maryland—both George Washington and Andrew Jackson were members of the Maryland Jockey Club.

The 1910 Betting Ban

In 1910, several years before Prohibition was enacted, the United States went through an anti-betting frenzy during which all but three states disallowed any form of legal betting or gambling. In those three states—Maryland, Kentucky, and New York—only betting on horseracing was allowed.

Thus, not only did the Triple Crown hosts survive the anti-gambling movement, but they also created the reservoir from which gambling interests grew after the Prohibition and the anti-gambling wave had run its course. At Pimlico, placing money on horses survived primarily because para-mutual was introduced as a way to circumvent the new laws.

A steeplechase is a cross-country horserace in which participants must jump numerous wooden rail hurdles called "timbers."
A steeplechase is a cross-country horserace in which participants must jump numerous wooden rail hurdles called "timbers."

Cross-Country Races for Horses

Maryland steeplechase racing is important to the Pimlico Race Course because, in the early years of the 20th century when track racing was under attack, a few members of the steeplechase community joined the Maryland Jockey Club and lent their much-needed support to the besieged racing industry.

Steeplechasing continues today in Maryland, and though it doesn't draw the large crowds that the Preakness does, many fans still make the outdoor journey to enjoy a spring afternoon in the countryside. Currently, steeplechase horseraces take place from March through November in a handful of Atlantic states stretching from Georgia to Upstate New York.

For those not familiar with a steeplechase, the race consists of a cross-country route that traverses grassy pastures interrupted by a half-dozen or so jumps. In the three Maryland races—My Lady's Manor, The Maryland Grand National, and the Hunt Cupthe jumping obstacles are actual timber fences. Despite their brevity, these outdoor events attract many spectators, who are more than happy to tote a blanket and picnic lunch to the racing site.

Steeplechase Racing in Maryland

The Preakness Stakes

Today, the Preakness Stakes is the second leg of the Triple Crown. The name for the race can be traced back to 1870, when the first race, called the Dinner Party Stakes, was run at the newly-constructed Pimlico Race Course. This race was limited to colts and was won by a young horse from New Jersey named Preakness.

The first Preakness Stakes was not actually run until 1873, at which time the race was limited to three-year-olds, a tradition which has continued to this day.

Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Harry Nielsen


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