Horse racing’s Triple Crown may start in Kentucky, but the state of Maryland — and its coveted Preakness Stakes — plays a huge part in the riveting series of American horse races each year.
While showcasing some of the world’s best 3-year-old horses on the biggest stage racing has annually, the Kentucky Derby sets the tone on the First Saturday in May.
But that is just the beginning of a five-week stretch of racing thrills that has crowned an exclusive number of elite legends in the Sport of Kings.
What starts each year with an exciting build-up early in the racing season that includes almost 50 official Derby prep races — then is propped up throughout the Triple Crown sequence — is then followed by what typically turns into a dramatic and tumultuous year of racing at some of the most iconic race tracks in the country.
The Kentucky Derby is historically one of the most competitive races in America in terms of field size. Twenty-plus horses are usually entered in the race every year, and up to 20 of them run in the prized contest beneath the famous Twins Spires at Churchill Downs.
But the pride of Maryland horse racing, the Preakness, is what keeps America watching.
While the Derby sets up the storyline for the Triple Crown and much of the 3-year-old racing season, it’s the other two jewels that keep the world interested in what happens next in a sport that seemingly loses fans — and gains some opposition — year in and year out.
Maryland plays a pivotal part in the Triple Crown
Regardless of who comes out of the Kentucky Derby as the victor, the betting public — and the millions of unconventional horse racing fans who focus their attention on the otherwise-widely-ignored sport for just more than a month — are keeping a close eye on the second leg of the racing trilogy as soon as the first one finishes.
Their hope is, at least for the non-casual racing fans, that the same horse who won the Kentucky Derby can capture the Preakness Stakes and become the 37th horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Only 13 horses have gone on to successfully capture the laborious three-race challenge dating back to its informal inception in 1875 — with 23 of those competitors falling short after winning the Derby and Preakness.
As a follow-up to the “Run for the Roses,” which is the Kentucky Derby’s nickname, the “Run for the Black-Eyed Susans,” as the Preakness is sometimes called, pays homage to the state flower of Maryland, the black-and-yellow wildflower also called the Gloriosa daisy.
Similar to how the winner of the Kentucky Derby is draped with a blanket of roses, the winner of the Preakness is draped in a blanket of (imitation) black-eyed Susans. (Fun fact: black-eye Susans don’t actually bloom in Maryland until late June or July, so yellow daisies are used instead and their centers are hand-painted to imitate the actual state flower for the blanket.)
What the Preakness Stakes means to racing and the state of Maryland
The Preakness Stakes is a 9.5-furlong (a mile-and-three-sixteenths) dirt race typically held on the third Saturday of May.
It’s the shortest Triple Crown race in terms of distance and was first run at Pimlico Race Course in 1873, just three years after the historic race track first opened its doors in Baltimore.
The iconic race was actually held outside of Maryland (or not run at all) for almost 20 years before it made its permanent return to Pimlico in 1909. Since then, it’s been a pivotal part of each racing season.
Not only is it vital to the sport of racing as a whole, but the Preakness is a crucial component to the state of Maryland.
It is estimated to bring in about $50 million worth of economic impact annually to Baltimore and the surrounding area, and the plan is to keep the race in Baltimore, likely at a redeveloped Pimlico Race Course once the proper steps are taken to put that plan into motion.
That will likely include updates to Maryland’s other race track, Laurel Park. Or it could mean something far different, like the permanent closure of the Annapolis racetrack.
Laurel Park has had its own problems recently, placing another potential black eye on a coveted racing trilogy and a sport that is oftentimes deflecting scrutiny.
All of these have a relatively minor impact on the Preakness Stakes as a prized part to horse racing’s great trilogy, though.
However, the same cannot be said for horse racing in Maryland, which will undoubtedly be drastically affected.
Betting angles in the Preakness and Triple Crown
There are a lot of different ways to bet on the Triple Crown and the Preakness.
While it’s common for the Kentucky Derby winner to become the betting favorite in the Preakness immediately after the first leg of the Triple Crown is made official, it doesn’t always happen that way.
Just last year in the second-biggest Kentucky Derby upset ever, Rich Strike — who went off in the Run for the Roses at booming odds of 79-1 — chose the rare path of skipping the Preakness altogether and focusing his efforts on the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes.
This propelled Kentucky Derby favorite Epicenter into the role of Preakness favorite — a title the Steve Asmussen-trainee likely would have had anyway — only to be beaten yet again (and place second) by another horse that had his Preakness win strategically planned out by his connections in their own unique way.
Klaravich Stables and trainer Chad Brown skipped the Kentucky Derby with Early Voting and aimed the colt directly to the Preakness with the plan to come in fresh and take on the favorable distance. In doing so, the colt captured the owner-trainer combo its second Preakness win while propelling the horse to more than $1 million in earnings (he won $990,000 from his Preakness win alone).
Coming into the Preakness, Early Voting had two wins and a second-place finish in his three starts, with his sole loss being suffered by only a neck.
Watch for Brown to execute a similar plan with his promising 3-year-old Blazing Sevens, who opted out of the Kentucky Derby two weeks before the race to focus on the Maryland Grade 1 race. Blazing Sevens has accumulated 46 Kentucky Derby points, ranking him 17th on the leaderboard that designates the 20 Derby entrants.
“I just feel this horse ran out of time really to develop to get to that race with a good chance to be competitive, meaning I’m looking to have a chance to win or be in the top 3,” Brown told the Daily Racing Form on April 23. “He’s a race behind where he needs to be.
“It’s a hard thing to pass on when you have those highly sought-after points. [Owners] John and Carla Capek are clients who have been in the game three years; they’re wonderful to deal with and in speaking with them, they want to put the horse first, which I love.”
One of the greatest racehorses of all time, Man o’ War, actually took a similar path to success (skipping the Kentucky Derby) although his trainer accredited this to his personal disapproval of racing a young horse at 10 furlongs so early in its career.
There are also a handful of game horses just outside of the top-20 Kentucky Derby leaderboard who could take a similar approach in the Preakness, primarily because they aren’t eligible for a spot in the gate in the first leg of the Triple Crown. At press time, some of those contenders include Cyclone Mischief, Major Dude, Mandarin Hero, and King Russell.
While exciting for the connections of all of the Preakness contenders, it also sets up a messy situation where the Kentucky Derby winner has an even bigger obstacle to tackle in taking on formidable competitors with fresh legs after he (or, in some years, she) wins the ultra-competitive Derby at the start of the five-week racing saga.
And, if the horse is able to claim victory in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the final test awaits at the Belmont Stakes in New York.