Pimlico History

Historic Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, first opened its doors on October 25, 1870, making it the second oldest racetrack in the nation behind Saratoga, which debuted in 1864 in upstate New York. Engineered by General John Ellicott, Pimlico has played host to racing icons for over a century, where Baltimoreans have seen the likes of legendary horses such as Man o’ War, Sir Barton, Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Citation, Secretariat and Cigar thunder down the stretch in thrilling and memorable competition.

     Constructed on 70 acres west of the Jones Falls, the Maryland Jockey Club purchased the land for $23,500, and built the racetrack for $25,000 after Maryland’s Governor at the time, Oden Bowie, suggested the interesting proposition during a dinner party in Saratoga, New York in 1868. Bowie and his friends, prominent racing figures, had agreed to run a race in two years commemorating the evening, for horses that were yearlings at the time. The winner would have to host the losers for dinner. Both Saratoga and the American Jockey Club made bids 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. Thus, Pimlico was built.

     “Pimlico” was the name given the area by English settlers in Colonial times, although the “Pemblicoe” spelling appeared on the original settlement charter granted to a group of Englishmen in 1669. The colonists hailed from an area near London, and harbored memories of a famous landmark “Olde Ben Pimlico’s Tavern.”
On a typical race day in the 1800’s, Baltimoreans in all sorts of horse-drawn carriages paraded out through Druid Hill Park, then by Green Spring Road to the Course. Afterwards, in the early days, a spur was built from the Western Maryland Railroad at Arlington direct to the grandstand, for convenience.

     The racetrack soon became affectionately known as “Old Hilltop,” after a small rise in the infield that became a favorite gathering place for trainers and race enthusiasts to view the contestants close-up, and vigorously cheer on their favorites. The infield was always a fashionable rendezvous, where in days gone by the four-in-hands, “spikes,” tandems, pairs and singles were parked and lively guests congregated between the races for a champagne lunch. This custom continues today in the Corporate Village at Preakness, where over 5,000 people representing many major corporations in the Mid-Atlantic region gather in a 21st century version of yesteryear’s “garden party.” Over 60,000 revelers crowd additional areas of the infield to celebrate Preakness Day.

En route to becoming a true national treasure, Pimlico has earned its patina of age, weathering 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 an era, representing a time and a society now involving three centuries. More than 50 years ago, the youthful president of the Maryland Jockey Club, Alfred G. Vanderbilt, made a pertinent observation that remains today, as Pimlico moves into another century: “Pimlico is more than a dirt track bounded 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.”