Historically, Maryland, and particularly, the Annapolis area, has participated in many firsts. The city was once the capital of our young nation during the Revolutionary War, and it boasts 4 hometown signers of the Declaration of Independence. So, it should come as no surprise that thoroughbred horseracing began here in Annapolis. Not Kentucky mind you, but right here in our own backyard.
Annapolis, in the seventeen-hundreds, was populated with several classes of people, the very rich, a working class, some poor, some indentured slaves and black slaves. At that time it was also heavily populated with wealthy former Englishmen and their descendants. The wealthy enjoyed many pastimes like music, dancing and games of chance. One of those games of chance was betting on outcomes, and horseracing fit well into that category. George Washington, our first President and resident of Virginia, was an avid horserace attendee in the Annapolis area, as were other notable gentlemen of the day. Many of them owned and raced thoroughbreds. Black slaves frequently cared for their owners’ horses, and some of them even were jockeys.
Enter the Horse Track
An Annapolis alderman in 1719 ordered a tract of land to be set aside, specifically to accommodate a horse straight-away. In those days, racetracks didn’t exist as we know them today. Races with 2 or 3 horses were run on a straightaway, sort of like a drag race, and that was the tract of land that the governor decreed to be set aside. According to historians, that first track was built somewhere along West Street presumably where the Graduate Hotel lies today. The idea of food concessions also began at those early horse races. The alderman also passed an ordinance requiring local taverns and pubs to provide refreshments for these races.
Fig. 1 is a poster from a 2001 gallery exhibit at St. John’s College depicting such a race on the tract of land mentioned above. The exhibit was a commemoration of the history of horseracing in Annapolis and Maryland. Designed by Gerard A. Valerio
The Epicenter of Racing
In the 1740’s to 1760’s, Annapolis was one of the cultural center of the colonies. People came from near and far to partake in the town’s cultural amenities, including George Washington. As as a wealthy plantation owner he had many interests, including dancing and was an avid fan of attending and betting on horseraces. Through his diaries, historians have found that he visited Annapolis many times simply to wager and watch the horse races.
The first recorded horse race has an interesting story. In 1747, Maryland Governor Ogle imported two English thoroughbreds, Spark and Queen Mab. At around the same time, Ogle’s brother-in-law and Annapolis city councilman, Benjamin Tasker, Jr., had purchased Selima, an English mare from the queen’s royal stables. This horse was entered into a race in Virginia, and Selima was “walked” 150 miles to attend that race and she won 2 races, creating some very ruffled feathers among the Virginia horse owners. They were angry they had lost, ultimately forbidding Maryland horses to race in Virginia. Crafty people those Marylanders! They got around that ban by sending their pregnant mares to Virginia to deliver their foals. Then the foals were natives of Virginia, even though their owners were Marylanders!
Artist's rendering of the off-loading of a thoroughbred horse, Queen Mab, a gift from the King of England. She was brought to the colonies as a foundation horse for Maryland blood stock. Painting by William Wilson, a native of Severn, MD. Image courtesy of Ellen Moyer.
Another local horse farm with history dating back to colonial times is owned by the Steuart family. Today, it is more commonly known as The Vineyards at Dodon, a farm and winery located in Davidsonvile, MD, just outside Annapolis. They raise horses to this day, but also have a stake in growing grapes and making some delicious wines. Dungannon was the name of their thoroughbred, (a.k.a. Duncannon), and you can drink an ode to the winning horse of yester year with Dodon's Red Blend, aptly named, Dungannon.
The Maryland Jockey Club
Also, in 1743, the first jockey club in America was founded here in Annapolis, Maryland. Today it is currently known as the Maryland Jockey Club and is affiliated with both Pimlico Race Track, home of the Preakness, the second race of the Triple Crown of Racing; and Laurel Race Track, Laurel, MD, it’s physical address. The first running of the Preakness was in 1870 and the purse was at $2,060. Today, the purse is about $8 million.
Selima, a Godolphin Arabian mare, on her owner's property at Belair Mansion. The mansion was home to Samuel Ogle, royal governor of Maryland. Godolphin was one of three Arabian stallions to which all thoroughbred horses trace their ancestry. She was originally purchased from Queen Anne's stables by Ogle's son-in-law, and shipped to the Maryland colony. Her first race was in Virginia in 1752. She walked the 150 miles from Maryland prior to winning the race! Painting by William Wilson, a native of Severn, MD. Photo courtesy of Ellen Moyer, former horse owner and former Annapolis mayor.
Painting by William Wilson, a native of Severn, MD of the thoroughbred racehorse, Othello, at his owner's mansion, Whitehall, just outside of Annapolis. Image courtesy of Ellen Moyer.
The trophy presented at the Preakness is an 1860 Tiffany-crafted silver creation called the Woodlawn Vase. Originally, it was awarded to the winning owner only until the next race and then given to the new winner’s owner. That practice was discontinued after 1953 when smaller and less valuable individual trophies were produced and given to the year’s winning owner for keeps. The original 1860 trophy is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art when it isn’t carted out for the award ceremony at the Preakness. Its value was deemed priceless, but estimated to be $4,000,000 replacement value.
The Preakness has some unique customs that have evolved over the past 278 years! As soon as the race is over, a painter mounts a model of the former clubhouse and paints the weathervane atop the model’s cupola with the silk colors of the winning horse and owner. In addition, the winning horse is adorned with a flower blanket of Black-Eyed Susans, Maryland's state flower and the state song, Oh Maryland, My Maryland is sung prior to the running of the Preakness.
This year's Preakness Stakes will take place at Pimlico. For more information head to their website. Image courtesy of The Maryland Jockey Club.
The next time you head to the track to cheer on the ponies, sip on a mint julep that first Saturday in May or drive past a picturesque horse farm in the rolling hills of Anne Arundel County; remember that our nation's love for horse racing all began here in Annapolis.
For more information on this year’s Preakness and regulations regarding attendance during Covid, please refer to their website.
Blog reference sources:
*Ellen Moyer, former horse owner and former Annapolis mayor, serving 2001-2009.
*The lost resources of MD, thoroughbred racing.com/articles
*Website for Maryland Jockey Club