Pimlico, Maryland’s Premier Horse Racing Track for 143 years

By Ellen Moyer

          According to legend, Colonel W. Randolph Tayloe asked that on his passing that his ashes be spread across the finish line at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Such is the passion that horse racing inspires.

In Virginia the Tayloe family name is legendary. Still sitting on the original 1600s land grant, the historic 1758 Neo-Palladian mansion, Mount Airy, was built by John Tayloe II primarily for the breeding of fine horses.  Two hundred years later, his descendant, W. Randolph Tayloe, chose at an early age to make his career with horses. He managed polo teams, wrote about horsemanship, taught it in the U.S. Army Calvary and trained thoroughbreds, which brought him to Baltimore and Pimlico.

Conversing at a dinner party after a racing card at the popular spa in Saratoga, N.Y., gentlemen horse enthusiasts proposed a race featuring the yearlings of those assembled. Oden Bowie, horse breeder and governor of Maryland, agreed to build a grand new track in Maryland. Two years later, on Oct. 25, 1870, Pimlico Race Course opened. The big race of the day was the Dinner Party Stakes, where a New Jersey colt named Preakness won. Wrapped up in the pageantry of the day, winning jockey Billy Hayward gathered the winner trophy of gold coins from a purse hanging from a wire.  That act introduced the word wire, meaning finish line, and the word purse, meaning the amount won in the race, into the parlance of the sport. The exclusive Clubhouse offered up another term, the clubhouse turn, which at Pimlico, as well as most other tracks, is located just past the finish line high above the grandstands.

The first Preakness Stakes, named after the Jersey colt that won in 1870, was run on May 27, 1873, drawing seven entrants. Kentucky-bred Survivor won by 10 lengths, a record winning margin until 2004. Then, a horse named Smarty Jones would win the Preakness by 11 1/2 lengths, a new record.

The name Preakness derives from the Native American word Pra-qua-les, meaning quail woods. The race on the third Saturday in May is the second leg of America’s Triple Crown that begins with the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May and ends with the longest race at Belmont in New York early in June. It is a grueling five-week test for three-year-old colts and occasionally fillies.  In 137 Triple Crown seasons only 11 horses have won that title. The last was Affirmed in 1978. Forty-three horses have won two of the three races.

Most of the nation’s great champion horses have raced at Pimlico,  including Secretariat, Man of War, Native Dancer, Seabiscuit and War Admiral to name a few.  On race day at Pimlico the crowd joins in singing “Maryland My Maryland,” led by the chorale of the U.S. Naval Academy. They are off and about two minutes later the winning horse is draped with a shawl of make-believe Black Eyed Susans, the Maryland state flower that does not normally bloom until after the race in June. The grand Woodlawn Vase trophy is held for a few moments by the winning owner before it is returned to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

So where did the name Pimlico come from? In the 1870s Pimlico was an exclusive community in London, England. It featured open space and beautiful gardens and homes of done in regency architecture and a tea garden and a tavern owned by Ben Pimlico, who was famous for his nut-brown ale. He seems to have given his name to the whole neighborhood of the wealthy middle class in the 1800s and to Maryland’s racetrack. Over time, Pimlico inLondondeteriorated. Observing the decline, G.K Chesterton wrote that, “Things are not loved because they are great but become great because they are loved, merely approved just remains an awful state of faltering status quo.” The transcendental virtue of love transforms, he opined.

Maryland’s Pimlico today is a sprawling edifice that seems to have lost some of its glory after its prominent Clubhouse burned 50 years ago. Nonetheless, racing at Pimlico has given the sport so many of its racing terms and it has provided much of the entertainment and thrills in racing history.

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