Preakness Stakes Schedule

by Alan Karre Jr

All horse racing fans know the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans happens on the third Saturday in May. But to actually get to that date, owners and trainers must plan ahead to ensure their colt or filly is eligible to run in the race. It is indeed a long and winding road and the vast majority of the colts and fillies will fall by the wayside in this rigorous process either due to injury, poor racing luck, or poor performance.

How It All Begins

To run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, a colt or filly must first be nominated to the Triple Crown races ahead of time. The first time period for nominations closes around the last third of the month of January and it costs a fee of $600 and paperwork must be filled out correctly and completely. The price for missing the January deadline is substantial as the fee increases to $6,000 and the last period ends late in the month of March. On any given year, between 300 and 400 colts and fillies are nominated by hopeful owners and trainers with dreams of Triple Crown glory. Supplemental nominations can be made for an individual Triple Crown race, but they can run over $100,000 and that amount is then added to the purse of the race.

Once nominated, there is a road to the Triple Crown that winds throughout North America, with several traditional routes, and some not so traditional with the destination being either Louisville, Baltimore, or New York City. For most owners, trainers, and their charges, the road to the Preakness and other Triple Crown races starts in their 2-year old season with either a maiden race, and if they graduate, a stakes race with the ultimate prize being a place in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, or Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in November.

The big races for two-year olds start in the summer with the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, and the Del Mar Futurity at Del Mar. The winners of these races receive an automatic fees-paid entrance into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Other key races include the Champaign Stakes at Belmont Park, another “win and you’re in” Breeders’ Cup prep. Once a horse runs well in the Juvenile or the Juvenile Fillies, the owners have the incentive to nominate their horse for the Triple Crown series, not to mention the cash to do it since these are $1,000,000 races.

The Triple Crown Prep Race Series

The main Triple Crown prep races start in February, and there are three main circuits that feed runners into the races. The main circuits are in Florida, at Gulfstream Park, California at Santa Anita Race Track, and Arkansas, at Oaklawn Park. Many horses also prep at Fairgrounds in New Orleans, but it has been several years since a horse from that circuit made much noise in any of the Triple Crown races. In 2012, the Louisiana Derby, the feature event of the Fairgrounds meet was won by a 109-1 longshot named Hero of Order that was not even nominated to the Triple Crown. His owners tried running him a few weeks later in the Blue Grass at Lexington to raise the $200,000 needed for a supplemental nomination to the Kentucky Derby, but he was soundly beaten by several lengths. Mucho Man Man in 2011 was the last winner of a major prep at Fairgrounds to make some noise at a Triple Crown race, running third in the Derby. But it is somewhat surprising that Fairgrounds is not drawing quality 3-year olds for their meeting.

The real serious action gets started in Florida with the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth, the main prep for the Florida Derby which is run in either very late March or very early April. In California, there are two main preps for the Santa Anita Derby, the premier race of the meet which is run the first Saturday in April. The Sham Stakes is run in February while the Robert B. Lewis Stakes is the last chance for horses to qualify for the Santa Anita Derby, the winner of which is typically a favorite in other Triple Crown races.

The action in Hot Springs, Arkansas at Oaklawn Park also gets started in February with the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes. Horses that do well in that race are then pointed at the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes in March. The ultimate goal of the meet is to get to the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby the 2nd Saturday in April, with the winner of that race also regarded as a strong Triple Crown favorite.

Other horses have gone the not so traditional routes to get to Baltimore the 3rd Saturday in May. In 2009, Mine That Bird ran at Woodbine Race Track in Canada as a 2-year old, running in a couple of graded stakes there. He was then shipped to New Mexico and ran in two prep races, the Borderland Derby and the Sunland Park Derby, finishing fourth in the latter. Because of so many horses falling off of the Triple Crown Trail due to injuries, he crept and higher and higher on the graded earnings list until he was eligible for the race, and his owner and trainer made the decision to run the colt in the race. The rest as they say, is history. He won the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 odds and ran a strong 2nd two weeks later in the Preakness at considerably lower odds. After running 3rd in the Belmont Stakes he never again won another race and is today retired and stabled at Sunland Park in New Mexico.

Also in 2009, a phenomenal filly started the season strong at the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Rachel Alexandra then went to Louisville not for the Kentucky Derby, but for the Kentucky Oaks, which is run the day before the Derby. She demolished the field over a sloppy track by 20 lengths. Her time in the race restricted to 3-year fillies was faster than the time posted by Mine That Bird the next day, also over a sloppy Churchill Downs track, convincing the owners to give her a try against the boys.

In that notable race, Rachel Alexandra had to go wide at the first turn to get good position, and set more than honest fractions. Mine That Bird ran last in the field until the turn for home, and he then started picking up horses quickly and gained on the leader. But Rachel Alexandra held him off by almost a length in an impressive time making her the first filly to win the race in over 80 years.

There is a traditional path taken by most to get to Baltimore on the 3rd Saturday in May, but there are also roads less taken that can also pay huge dividends.

Once You’re There, Take in the Sights and Sounds of Preakness Week

Anyone planning on attending the Preakness Stakes owes it to themselves to take in all this historic city and race have to offer. Taking place on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday on Preakness week, Sunrise at Old Hilltop is a 20-minute tour that takes place from 6 AM to 9 AM. Visitors get to enjoy the majestic sunrise at the track, and then get an inside look at the sport of horse racing with a tour of the stakes barns where you could run into one of the trainers, jockeys, and can see the horses running in the big race up close.

Another Preakness week event you will not want to miss is the Preakness Post Position Draw on the Wednesday before the race. Pimlico officials use a pill pull, which uses a numbered ball in a blind draw. On Friday, you have a chance to meet your favorite jockey at an autograph session. Saturday morning you can attend a handicapping seminar with experts from the Daily Racing Form and ESPN to improve the odds of you selecting a winner later in the day.

The city of Baltimore also gets in on the act with a number of interesting events prior to the race. The Preakness Celebration Hot Air Balloon Festival allows visitors to the city to get a close up look at these colorful hot air balloons. There is high quality live entertainment, craft vendors so you can shop for a souvenir, watch pilot demonstrations, and you can even take a tethered balloon ride. It takes place on the Friday before the race.

So if you planning a trip to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, either as a spectator or as a horse trainer or owner, take the entire week to see everything the city and the race track have to offer. Reserve hotel rooms in advance to be sure you get good accommodations and do some research over the internet as to your public transportation options to have the best possible experience. And good luck picking the horses on the third Saturday in May.