On the 140th Running of the Preakness Stakes

May 15, 2015
by Maryland Humanities

As you enjoy the 140th running of the Preakness this weekend, however and wherever you enjoy it, remember first and foremost that you are taking in an ages-old Maryland tradition. The Preakness’ lineage is engrained within the history of Maryland and animates the annual running of the race.

Although it has gained a national reputation, the Preakness didn’t always hold a place of prominence in our national culture. In 1868, at a dinner party hosted by the famous horse-breeder Milton H. Sanford following a day at the races in Saratoga, New York, Sanford proposed to his guests that they hold a sweepstakes race in two years’ time. Under circumstances that are still unclear, Governor Oden Bowie of Maryland won the rights to hold the race in his state. To hold the running of the “Dinner Party Stakes,” Bowie built a track near the Jones Falls in Baltimore: Pimlico Race Course.

The running of the Dinner Party Stakes in October 1870 took onlookers by surprise. Instead of a muddy, unfit course, the Stakes were run during an Indian Summer uncommon in the history of Maryland’s Autumnal weather; and instead of the 2-1 favorite Foster, it was an untested colt named Preakness that won the Stakes that day. It was in honor of the trailblazing winner of the Dinner Party Stakes that Pimlico’s soon to be signature race would be named.

Some 3 years later, the first Preakness was run, and a proud tradition was born. With the exception of a 19 year hiatus, in which it was held at sites throughout New York and New Jersey, the Preakness has been run at Pimlico. Among the Triple Crown races, the Preakness may not have the Derby’s name, or Belmont’s slightly more august reputation, but it’s recognized as a test of skill for the best of that year’s Derby class. To quote famous Baltimorean Ogden Nash, “The Derby is a race of aristocratic sleekness, for horses of birth to prove their worth in the Preakness.”

On Saturday, Pimlico’s pleasures will be momentary and enjoyed live by comparatively few people, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to honor the Preakness throughout the weekend. For instance, the original Woodlawn Vase, a copy of which is awarded to the owner whose horse wins the Preakness, is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art. However, you can also enjoy a bit of Preakness tradition at home as well. Following a simple recipe transcribed below, you can enjoy “The Preakness,” a recently revived cocktail originally conceived for the occasion of the Preakness Ball, held in May of 1936. However you choose to honor the Preakness this weekend, make sure to keep one thing in mind. The Preakness is not just a time to celebrate and enjoy the height of Spring; it’s also a way to connect into one of the proudest traditions in our state’s history.

The Preakness Cocktail

The following recipe is a simplified version but still very similar to the traditional recipe recorded in most cocktail books. By all accounts, it’s simply a Manhattan variant. Recipe adapted from David Wondrich.

2 ounces straight rye whiskey
1 ounce Martini & Rossi red vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1/2 teaspoon Benedictine
Stir with cracked ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and twist a swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top.

Citations 
Joseph J. Challmes, The Preakness: A History (Anaconda: Severna Park, 1975).
Richard Gorelick, “The Preakness and Other Forgotten Cocktails,” The Baltimore Sun, May 12, 2015.
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