Preakness Stakes

by Alan Karre Jr

Run annually on the 3rd Saturday in May, the Preakness Stakes is one of the most prestigious thoroughbred horse races run in North America. The race is run at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore, Maryland, and for years has been known as the 2nd leg of the American Triple Crown for three-year old colts and fillies. It is restricted to 14 entries, and entry is granted based on graded stakes earnings if more than 14 horses are entered. It is also one of the most heavily bet races and has for years given wise-guy bettors and the public at large huge betting pools for win, place, show, and exotic bets.

First run in the year 1873, the race was named after a horse that won a stakes race on the opening day of the track in 1870. Originally run at the distance of 1 1/2 miles, the race today is run at the distance of 1 3/16 miles, one-half furlong shorter than the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, and two and one-half furlongs shorter than the Belmont Stakes, which is run in June three weeks after the Preakness and is the 3rd leg of the American Triple Crown. The winner of the first Preakness Stakes took home a purse of just over $2,000, today the purse is at least $1,000,000 with the winner’s share being $600,000, and several tracks have programs that promise bonuses to horse that win races on their tracks and go on to win the Preakness.

Run for the Black-eyed Susans Traditions

Tradition is a big part of the running of the Preakness Stakes. Just after the call to post, a musical group, most often the United States Naval Academy Glee Club leads the crowd in the singing of Maryland, My Maryland, the state song. The infield of Pimlico Race Track is opened to the public on most days of this race to accommodate the overflow crowd which can top 60,000+. The undercard of the event includes several high quality graded stakes races that offer bettors more large pools in both the straight and exotic wagers. The owner of the winning horse is given a replica of the Woodlawn Vase, the original is brought out of the Baltimore Museum of Art under guard each year for the presentation ceremony.

The winner of the Preakness Stakes is presented with a blanket of yellow flowers made to look like Black-eyed Susans, the state flower is out of season at the time of the race. And immediately after the race is made official, a painter climbs to the top of the Pimlico clubhouse and paints the horse and rider weather vane the colors of that year’s winner. If the Kentucky Derby winner repeats his performance in the Preakness and wins again, speculation and interest will rise as to whether the horse can be the first since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. And I’ll Have Another did just that last May, once again running down the speedy Bodemeister in deep stretch. But the horse was scratched days before the Belmont Stakes with an injury and shortly after was retired to stud duty in Japan. It is also a good betting angle, as 5 of the last 10 Preakness Stakes have been won by the Derby winner.

Some Notable Horses to Run in the Preakness Stakes and the Greatest Races

Pimlico Race Track and the Preakness have seen a who’s who of the best horses in the last century pass through the paddock and into the starting gate. In 1973, Secretariat ran a powerful race, once again repulsing Sham in the stretch in a race in which the official time was disputed. Finally, in 2012, Secretariat was awarded the record time for the race at 1:53, which has stood to this day.

In 1978, Affirmed and his rival Alydar ran 1-2 in all three Triple Crown races, and to this day it is still regarded as one of the greatest rivalries in horse racing and of all sports. In 2004, Smarty Jones won his last race over the Pimlico Race Track, winning by 11 1/2 lengths in what was the most promising Triple Crown campaign in years. He would lose three weeks later to Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes and be retired to stud after it was found he was injured. Several of the horses beaten by Smarty Jones including Birdstone, Rock Hard Ten, and Borrego would affirm the greatness of Smarty Jones by winning Grade 1 stakes such as the Travers and Pacific Classic over the next few years and Birdstone today is regarded as one of the leading sires in North America, having produced multiple Grade 1 champions.

2009 saw the Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra take on the boys, including 50-1 longshot Derby winner Mine That Bird. She led from the start and held off the Kentucky Derby winner in deep stretch to become the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes since 1924. She would go on to win the Haskel later in the year and be named Eclipse Horse of the Year for 2009.

The Standard for Exciting Preakness Stakes in the 21st Century

One of the most famous races run at the Preakness Stakes came in 2005. Afleet Alex, champion 2-year old was favored in the race against 13 rivals. Scrappy T, a front-running longshot stalked the leaders through the first five furlongs of the race and took the lead on the backstretch. While making his move, late-running Afleet Alex found room down by the rail and attempted to move left to pass Scrappy T at the top of the stretch. Scrappy T veered out abruptly, clipping heels with Afleet Alex, causing the colt to stumble to his knees. For a second it appeared both the horse and the jockey were in peril as the field bore down on them. In a miraculous move, Afleet Alex regained his feet, and regained the lead shortly after and won going away by 4 1/2 lengths over Scrappy T. His final time of 1:55 was outstanding in view of his mishap and Afleet Alex ran the final 3/16 in one of the fastest times in the history of the race.

Tragedy at the Preakness Stakes

While tragedy was averted that day in 2005, it would not be long before racing fans had their collective hearts broken in Baltimore. In 2006, Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby going away in a fast time, and long-time racing fans once again had real hope for a Triple Crown winner. Barbaro came into the Preakness a heavy betting favorite, but as the horses were loaded into the gate, an ominous incident occurred. Barbaro broke through the gate before the bell and had to be reloaded in the gate. Before the clubhouse turn in the opening two furlongs of the race, Barbaro was reeled in by jockey Edgar Prado who had felt the horse break down. Prado bravely tried to calm the distressed colt to avoid further injury and was clearly emotional after the horse had been vanned off.

The right hind leg of Barbaro was broken in 20 places. A lesser horse might have been immediately euthanized, but his owners never considered that option. The plight of the brave colt caught the hearts of the public at large and many groups held prayer vigils to ask for divine intervention of the previously undefeated champion. Barbaro received the best possible equine care in the world and his owners spared no expense in having him treated even through they knew he would never race again. Against the odds, Barbaro appeared to getting better over the next few months, and his owners held out hope he might have a 2nd career as a stud. But in January of 2007, Barbaro developed laminitis in his other hind leg and also developed the disease in his front hoofs and could not comfortably support his weight on any of his three healthy legs. On January 29th, 2007, owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson made the decision not to let their champion suffer any more and had him euthanized. Today, the Barbaro Stakes is run on the undercard of the Preakness program to honor him.

The Preakness Stakes Today

The Preakness Stakes has been under some scrutiny as Maryland horse racing fortunes have declined for several years, and the horse racing industry in general has seen better days. There was even some talk of moving the race to another venue, but cooler heads prevailed. The only place for this historic race to be run is at Pimlico Race Course and the Sport of Kings will again thrive as the economy recovers.