The Preakness Showcases Maryland's Roots - WAMU (NPR) - FM in Washington, DC

by Matt Bush

May 19, 2011 - On Saturday, around 100,000 people will pack the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, the second race in horse racing's Triple Crown. The Preakness showcases all things Maryland, including the state's horse racing industry. But it's been a long time since a Maryland horse won the race.

A lithograph from 1876 shows one of the first Preakness Stakes.  Courtesy of: The Maryland Historical Society 

A lithograph from 1876 shows one of the first Preakness Stakes. Courtesy of: The Maryland Historical Society

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The roots of horse racing in Maryland go back to when it was just one of the 13 original colonies.

"Actually one of the first imported horses was Selima. It was brought in by Gov. Samuel Ogle in the 18th century. Selima was actually offspring of the Godolphin Arabian, and was one of the very first thoroughbreds," says Mark Letzer, with the Maryland Historical Society.

The sport continued to grow in the state, and in 1870, Pimlico opened. That year, a horse with a familiar name won the first race, according to Letzer.

"The Dinner Party Stakes, and the first horse that won that race was Preakness. And it's been known as the Preakness Stakes ever since," he says.

Included in the Historical Society's library is a lithograph from 1876, which depicts one of the first Preakness Stakes. The jockeys on it are sitting straight up on their mounts, but Letzer says little else has changed from then to now.

"It's a very rare lithograph, but it shows the popularity of the sport early on. Ever since the third quarter of the 19th century, it has been very heavily followed," he says.

Eight Maryland horses have won the Preakness, but the last was in 1983. Deputed Testamony, like all the other winners, was draped post-race in a blanket of the Maryland state flower, the Black-Eyed Susan. Except, the flowers aren't actually Black-Eyed Susans.

"What they do is use daisies and dye the centers black with lacquer. That's because the Black-Eyed Susan doesn't bloom until June," Letzer says.

He says there was actually a lot of controversy about the selection of Black-Eyed Susans as the state flower in 1918.

"It wasn't a formalized, or a beautiful type of plant. It was more of a native wildflower, and I think it was a wonderful choice for that very reason. Because it is something that is commonly found, and it does represent us and it occurs naturally in Maryland," he says.

There's another Black-Eyed Susan at the Preakness -- it's also the name of the race's official cocktail, which contains: vodka, whiskey, sweet and sour mix, and orange juice.

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