The History Of Pimlico Race Course

The Pimlico Members’ Club 1959.

THE BIRTH OF A LEGEND

Historic Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes and second oldest racetrack in the nation behind Saratoga, opened its doors on October 25, 1870. Pimlico has hosted many racing icons for over a century; legendary horses such as Man o’ War, Sir Barton, Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Citation, Secretariat and Cigar have thundered down her stretch in thrilling and memorable competition.

Pimlico was ultimately the result of an interesting dinner party proposition made by Maryland’s then Governor, Oden Bowie. In Saratoga, New York in 1868 Bowie and his friends, prominent racing figures, agreed to race horses that were then just yearlings in two years time to commemorate the evening. The winner would host the losers for dinner. Saratoga and the American Jockey Club bid for the event, but Governor Bowie pledged he would build a model racetrack in his home state if the race were to be run in Baltimore. And so, Pimlico was built.

REMEMBERING THE OLD DAYS

The name “Pimlico” was given to the area by English settlers in Colonial times, although the “Pemblicoe” spelling appeared on the original settlement charter in 1669. The colonists were from an area near London and brought with them memories of a famous landmark, Olde Ben Pimlico’s Tavern.

Engineered by General John Ellicott, Pimlico was constructed on 70 acres of land, west of Jones Falls; the Maryland Jockey Club purchased the land for $23,500 and built the track for $25,000. On any given race day in the 1800’s Baltimoreans could be seen in horse–drawn carriages parading through Druid Hill Park, then down Green Spring Road and on to the Course.

Later, for greater convenience, a spur was built from Western Maryland Railroad at Arlington to go directly to the grandstand. The racetrack soon became affectionately known as “Old Hilltop”, after a small rise in the infield that was a favorite gathering place for trainers and race enthusiasts to view and cheer on the racers close–up. The infield was a fashionable rendezvous where four–in–hands, “spikes”, tandems, pairs and singles parked and lively guests would congregate between races for a champagne lunch. Today, the nickname remains, but the hill was removed in April 1938 because it obscured the track–level view of the backstretch in the early days of filming races.

In 1904, after a brief hiatus, racing at Pimlico ignited unprecedented recognition and interest from the public and newspapers alike. Race charts began to appear, quite similar to modern day style, instead of mere social reports. Pimlico even survived the anti–gambling movement of 1910, where the sport was banned everywhere except Maryland and Kentucky. Billy Riggs is alleged to have saved eastern racing at this time with his use of the less sinful “French Pools” or pari–mutuel machines instead of bookmarkers and blackboards.

MORE THAN A DIRT TRACK

On its journey to becoming a true national treasure, Pimlico has earned its patina of age. It has weathered small and major wars, recessions, depressions – including the Great Depression of the 1930’s – fires, storms, and the simple passage of time. Its vitality has spanned many eras, which included different times and societies, over the course of three centuries.

More than 50 years ago, the youthful president of the Maryland Jockey Club, Alfred G. Vanderbilt. Made an observation that still applies today: “Pimlico is more than a dirt track bound by four streets. It is an accepted American institution, devoted to the best interests of a great sport, graced by time, respected for its honorable past.”

Pimlico is home of the Preakness, the middle jewel of racing’s Visa Triple Crown