The color of the official Maryland Jockey Club photograph has faded some, but the memories are as bright as the day we bounded into the winner’s circle at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness Stakes (G1) Day 30 years ago. It wasn’t for the big race on the card, but the day’s first race, a six-furlong event for $30,000 claiming types. We made enough on that race to last until the main event, when the remaining cash was bet on winner Risen Star. Preakness Day 1988 was as good as any we’ve ever experienced at Old Hilltop.
The year before was our first foray to Pimlico, a happy bachelor party spent in the clubhouse on Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (G2) day. The party got a thrill with an introduction to legendary trainer Jack Van Berg, who would win the following day’s main event with Alysheba.
Trips to Baltimore for the Preakness have rarely been as profitable, but they’ve always been fun. There is something relaxing about Old Hilltop; the light hits the track differently in the morning, and the horses definitely hit the ground differently over the main track. Horses barely make a sound as their hooves strike the dirt track. The surface seems particularly kind to horses—it’s a shame it’s only used 12 days a year.
On one memorable morning in 2012, a gaggle of kids hung on the rail, intently watching as each horse went by. Their hero, Lava Man, came back, trotting the wrong way past the finish line. They paid no attention to the horse that was behind him, who happened to be the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner I’ll Have Another.
From our first trip to this year’s running, we’ve seen memorable performances and head-scratchers.
We recall trainer Bill Boniface being quoted in Daily Racing Form in 1995 as saying “the horse that beats Oliver’s Twist won’t eat up.” Timber Country edged the Maryland-bred Oliver’s Twist by a half-length in the Preakness. He may or may not have eaten up that night, but we do know he didn’t face the starter again.
Smarty Jones’ 11 1⁄2-length dismantlement of his rivals in 2004 was as sharp as Fusaichi Pegasus’ defeat to Red Bullet in 2000 was flat. We’ve never heard 110,000 people make so little noise as that wet Saturday afternoon.
The back-to-back Preakness runnings in 2005-06 were about as strange as they come.
In 2005, favorite Afleet Alex went to his nose in midstride at the head of the lane as he bumped with Scrappy T and jockey Ramon Dominguez. Afleet Alex’s recovery—and subsequent 43⁄4-length win—was one of the most amazing things witnessed in racing.
And, consider this: Had Afleet Alex fallen or pulled up, Scrappy T likely would have been disqualified, allowing third-place finisher Giacomo to be elevated to the win spot, which would have him shipping to Belmont with a shot to win the Triple Crown.
The following year Derby winner Barbaro broke through the starting gate before the start, making for an eerie precursor to the race, where he broke his hind leg 100 yards in. His battle for his life that year cast a long shadow over the brilliant season of Preakness winner and eventual champion sophomore male Bernardini.
That fall Bernardini fell just short in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (G1) to Invasor, who had thrilled the fans at Pimlico the day before that fateful Preakness in the Pimlico Special (G1).
That first Preakness we attended featured the Derby-winning filly Winning Colors, who was “race-ridden” by Pat Day and Forty Niner pretty hard that afternoon. That race mirrored the 1980 renewal when Angel Cordero Jr. and Codex floated the Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk wide in the stretch.
The Preakness was apparently no place for a lady until Rachel Alexandra came along in 2009.
What will this year’s Preakness bring? We wouldn’t dare make a prediction, but we do know the race will be preceded by some good conversation and some tasty crab cakes.