Nicholas Godfrey on the Preakness Stakes

International racing expert Nicholas Godfrey examines the background to Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, live on Sky Sports Racing.

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GET over it: there’s not gonna be any rematch in the Preakness! Yes, of course, under other circumstances, following one of the most controversial editions of the Kentucky Derby in history, this weekend’s second leg of the Triple Crown might have been one of the most eagerly anticipated in years.

Instead, Maximum Security is holed up in New Jersey awaiting a summer return in the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, while Country House – let’s just call him the lucky winner; it saves time – becomes the first Derby victor since 1996 (and only the fourth in four decades) not to show up in Pimlico.

Perhaps that’s why the tabloid New York Post, never ones to avoid an emotive headline when they can find one, described the development as a “Triple Crown debacle” – and this precisely 100 years after Sir Barton became the first of 13 Triple Crown winners, although the term did not enter common parlance until Gallant Fox achieved the feat in 1930.

Be that as it may, Saturday’s $1.5m event could have been a proper grudge match, but what we’ve got instead is a competitive contest featuring up to a dozen runners – the biggest field for eight years headed by Derby fourth Improbable, likely to start favourite as he bids to give Bob Baffert a record eighth victory.

War Of Will, the horse most directly affected by Maximum Security’s far-turn drift, is also back for more, plus a couple of others and several intriguing new shooters. It’ll be worth watching, make no mistake about that, but in some ways this year’s Preakness (pronounced ‘Preak-nus’, with the emphasis on the first syllable) can almost be regarded as par for the course. The Preakness can sometimes feel like a runt in the US Classic litter, lacking the razzmatazz of the Kentucky Derby two weeks before and never having the added kudos of Triple Crowns on the line like the Belmont three weeks later, maybe little more than a lap of honour for the Churchill Downs victor.

For all that, however, you’ll find any number of compellingly dramatic renewals in the modern era of a race that holds an enduring place in the affections of the US racing public.

Dating back to 1873, the Preakness is named for a horse who won a stakes race at the inaugural meeting at Pimlico (itself located in an unlovely-borderline-dodgy suburb of Baltimore, if you’re visiting).

Run over a half-furlong less than the Kentucky Derby, it has its own series of customs and traditions: if the Derby is the ‘Run for the Roses’, then this is the ‘Run for the Black-Eyed Susans’, named for the blanket of yellow flowers draped over the winner on the third Saturday in May. At Churchill Downs, you’ll get ‘My Old Kentucky Home’; here, it’s ‘Maryland, My Maryland’. Secretariat even holds the stakes record time, though it took nearly three decades to be recognised after a cock-up on the timing front!

One Preakness tradition that has no Kentucky equivalent occurs soon after they’ve passed the post at Pimlico when a painter is lifted up on a hydraulic lift to a weather vane shaped like a horse and rider above a cupola on the track’s infield where he will paint the winner’s colours. The custom dates from 1909; they make a lot of their history at Pimlico – or ‘Old Hilltop’, as it is known colloquially – as well they might given that this beaten-up old track was the place where Seabiscuit beat War Admiral in the 1938 Pimlico Special, recognised as an iconic contest well beyond the borders of North America.



That race, incidentally, is now run as a Grade 3 on Friday’s card alongside the Black-Eyed Susan for three-year-old fillies (in effect, the Pimlico Oaks).

What is more, even If the Preakness these days tends to gain rather less international attention than its Triple Crown sibling contests, it never goes unnoticed closer to home, regularly producing the second-highest attendance figure of any US horse race. We’re talking six figures for the last eight years, with a record 140,327 in 2017 when Cloud Computing stunned his rivals.

A large proportion of these will be spending their Preakness afternoon inside the track at the annual ‘InfieldFest’ which, if my own experience is anything to go by, is more riotous than its better-known Kentucky Derby counterpart, possibly owing to the Bring Your Own Booze policy in operation until a decade ago. It didn’t make much difference after the policy was rescinded, perhaps because the track then introduced an unlimited-refill beer mug as part of one type of ticket. Not for nothing was the infield mascot a horse named ‘Kegasus’, though he retired in 2013. The infield party continues, though it isn’t a cheap shot: $89 is the general admission price for 2019, though you also get a day-long music festival.

If you’re more interested in the horses, you’ll find Pimlico a charmingly ramshackle venue rightly prized by the city burghers of Baltimore, who react with horror to persistent gossip suggesting the second leg of the Triple Crown could be moved to nearby Laurel, which is also owned by the Stronach Group and seemingly gets rather more TLC than its blue-collar brother.

There are those who still mourn the loss of a slice of Baltimore’s sporting soul when the beloved Colts went to Indianapolis in 1984; the NFL team’s name had even come from the Preakness.

They got an expansion team, the Ravens, towards the end of the century; they’ve still got the Orioles baseball at Camden Yards and, for now, Pimlico still has the Preakness.

Long may it remain. It’s a special race in a special place.



1973: Secretariat's record (belatedly)
Watch out for ‘Big Red’s dramatic early last-to-first move in which he circles the entire field within 300 yards. Daily Racing Form clockers timed him at 1m53 2/5s, which would have been a new record, but others disagreed, and the official time via the Pimlico clocker came out at 1m54 2/5s. In June 2012, the Maryland Racing Commission finally gave official status to Secretariat’s record by amending his Preakness time following scrutiny of race replays and witness testimony. He therefore holds the record in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

1978 Affirmed vs Alydar
In one of the greatest equine rivalries in the history of the sport, Affirmed and Alydar met no fewer than ten times duirng their two- and three-year-old seasons. The ‘Kentucky Kid’ Stave Cauthen and Affirmed got the lead at the half-mile mark and just held off the runner-up by a neck to keep themselves firmly on the Triple Crown trail.

1989 Sunday Silence vs Easy Goer
Another famous rivalry, heightened by the east-versus-west subplot that is seldom far from the surface when it comes to top-level US racing. After Sunday Silence beat blue-blooded Easy Goer by 2 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs, the pair went head-to-head at Pimlico in an unforgettable duel. “And down the stretch they come…” They were almost inseparable at the wire. Almost…

2004 Smarty Jones
Utterly dominant display from the Kentucky Derby winner – and a record 11-length winning margin.

2005 Afleet Alex
Kentucky Derby third Afleet Alex won by five lengths – but only after a display of acrobatics from his second-division jockey Jeremy Rose, forced to grab hold of his mount’s mane rodeo-style after he was nearly brought down by the leader Scrappy T, who blew the turn (not a million miles removed from Maximum Security a couple of weeks ago).

2009 Rachel Alexandra
The first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years. Rachel Alexandra’s 20-length romp in the Kentucky Oaks had left many observers suggesting she ought to have run in the Derby instead. Sold to Stonestreet Stables and transferred to Steve Asmussen’s barn from Hal Wiggins in the interim, she took on her male counterparts at Pimilico, where she held off Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Preakness Stakes
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