by John Furgele, Special Thoroughbred Edition
It’s the third Saturday in May and that means it’s time for the Preakness Stakes. While that doesn’t resonate like the first Saturday in May—Kentucky Derby Day—there are many reasons why the Preakness Stakes may be better than the more famous event in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Preakness got its name when a colt named Preakness won the Dinner Party Stakes in 1870, the year the track opened in the Park Heights section in Northwest Baltimore City, which is how the town is referred to by the locals. Local media also refer to it as Charm City.
Pimlico is the second oldest thoroughbred track in the United States, behind only Saratoga Race Course, which opened in 1864.
Pimlico runs just a 12-day meet in 2019. After today, there will be five more days of racing remaining at the place they call Old Hilltop. That wasn’t always the case, but Pimlico continues to fall apart before our eyes. The only thing keeping the old track open is the Preakness, which according to Maryland state law, has to be run in Baltimore as long as the race is run in Maryland. Laurel Racetrack sits 30 miles to the southwest and runs 168 days this year.
The race is run at the unusual distance of 1 3/16 miles. That’s a distance you won’t see too often and is 1/16 mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby and 5/16 shorter than the Belmont Stakes which will be run on Saturday, June 8
What does that mean in terms of time? The Derby winner usually finishes the 1 ¼ miles in slightly over 2 minutes. The average winning time usually falls in the 2:02 to 2:04 range. The Preakness is usually run 6 to 9 seconds faster. Last year, Justify won the Derby in 2:04.20 and then won the Preakness in 1:55.93.
The Preakness Stakes record is 1:53.00 by the legendary Secretariat in 1973, but that comes with some controversy. There was a supposed clock malfunction in ’73 and for years, Secretariat’s recorded winning time was 1:54.40. In 1996, Louis Quatorze won the Preakness in 1:53.40. That was the official record for 15 years, until the historians did some research and gave it to Secretariat.
We’ll never know if Secretariat actually ran 1:53; he certainly was good enough, but it’s tough to re-time a race from grainy old video. There are some—and I might be one of them—that believe a movement began to ensure that Secretariat would have the records at all three Triple Crown races. His Derby time of 1:59.40 still stands and his Belmont time of 2:24.00 may never be broken. While the Belmont time appears safe, his Derby time might be, too. Only two horses have won the Derby in under 2 minutes. Monarchos clocked 1:59.97 in 2001.
Assuming his 1:53.00 was indeed legit, that record time may also stand for eternity. Since 1988, only four horses have broken 1:54 in the Preakness. Sunday Silence ran 1:53.80 in his epic duel with Easy Goer in 1989; Summer Squall ran 1:53.80 in 1990; the aforementioned Louis Quatorze, 1:53.40 in 1996 and Curlin came home in 1:53.46 in 2007. Unlike humans, horses seem to have plateaued time wise in these modern times.
The Preakness, because it’s in the middle will always be relevant. It can set up the Belmont for a day dripping with anticipation, or it can make the Belmont nothing more than a classic American stakes race. This year, the Preakness doesn’t have the Derby winner due to illness, but it still drew a 13-horse field and seems on paper like a wide open, anybody can win affair.
Unlike the Derby which allows a bloated field of 20, the Preakness is limited to 14 starters. And, it doesn’t use a point system. Horses that are nominated to the Triple Crown as 2-year olds are eligible. In addition, there are a few “win and you’re in,” races where the winners were automatically guaranteed a spot in the Preakness field. This year, there were three such races; the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields in California; the Frederico Tesio Stakes at Laurel and the Oaklawn Invitational at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, AR. All three winners—Anothertwistafate, Alwaysmining and Laughing Fox took their spots for this, the 144th renewal.
It’s relatively inexpensive to nominate a horse to the Triple Crown. The last I checked, the cost was $600. For many horse owners, that doesn’t cover dinner for family and friends. But what if you don’t nominate a horse and then decide to run in one of the races? Well, the cost is a bit more—$150,000 and we saw that this year when the owners of Warrior’s Charge decided to “pony up,” the 150k to get the colt into the race. Will it pay off? We’ll know by 7 PM tomorrow.
The total purse for the Preakness is $1.5 million. In thoroughbred racing, the winner gets 60 percent, second 20 percent and third 10 percent with the remaining 10 percent divided among the other runners. For those struggling with the math, that means 900k for first, $300k for second and 150k for third.
The Derby is known for elegant style while the Preakness proudly proclaims itself as “The People’s Race.” Both races allow patrons on the infield, but the Preakness takes it to a different level with live bands and yes, some debauchery. Attendance for yesterday’s Black Eyed Susan Day was a record of 51,000 plus. If the weather holds, we could see 130,000 today.
The Belmont has never opened its infield and caps attendance at 90,000. When you think about it, horse racing, warts and all, still can draw over 300,000 to three races in May and June. Americans may not love horse racing like they once did, but they still respect it.
The Preakness is a fun day of racing. It may not be as regal as the Derby or as royal as the Belmont, but as an American classic race, it owes an apology to nobody and no one.