Historically, Maryland, 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 four hometown signers of the Declaration of Independence. So, it should be no surprise that thoroughbred horseracing began here in Annapolis. Not Kentucky, mind you, but right here in our backyard.
Annapolis, in the seventeen-hundreds, was populated with several classes of people, the very rich, the working class, some poor, some indentured, and some enslaved people. It was also heavily populated at that time 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 nicely into that category. Many of them owned and raced thoroughbreds. Enslaved Black people frequently cared for their owners' horses; some even were jockeys. 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.
Enter the Horse Track
In those days, racetracks didn't exist as we know them today. Races with 2 or 3 horses ran on a straightaway, sort of like a drag race. An Annapolis alderman in 1719 ordered a tract of land set aside to accommodate a horse straight away for racing purposes. According to historians, that first track was built along West Street, presumably where the Graduate Hotel is 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 commemorated the history of horseracing in Annapolis and Maryland. Designed by Gerard A. Valerio
The Epicenter of Racing
From the 1740s to the 1760s, Annapolis was one of the cultural centers of the colonies. People came from near and far to partake in the town's cultural amenities, including George Washington. As a wealthy plantation owner, he had many interests, including dancing, and was an avid fan of attending and betting on horseraces. Historians have found that he visited Annapolis many times to wager and watch the horse races through his diaries.
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 entered a Virginia race, and Selima "walked" 150 miles to attend that race, where 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 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 bloodstock. Painting by William Wilson, a native of Severn, MD. Image courtesy of Ellen Moyer.
The Steuart family owns another local horse farm with a history dating back to colonial times. Today, it is known as The Vineyards at Dodon, a farm and winery located in Davidsonville, 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 yesteryear 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. It is currently known as the Maryland Jockey Club and is affiliated with Pimlico Race Track, home of the Preakness, the second race of the Triple Crown of Racing; and Laurel Race Track, Laurel, MD. 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, is 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. 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 a $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, 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