Racing in the Merry Month of May
By Ellen Moyer
It’s May. It’s May, the jolly month of May. For Lerner and Loewe it is the month when “all the world is brimming with fun.” For horse racing fans, the month of May is their Camelot.
It is the time for family outings on green fields and up Maryland’s rolling hills to watch horses run for four miles jumping over timber fences. It is picnicking and tailgating with the elite.
OK. Maryland’s Hunt Cup, considered one of the most difficult of steeplechase races in the world, and the last of Maryland’s Triple Crown steeplechase races is not in May, but the last Saturday in April. Several of its winners, Jay Trump in the 1960s and Ben Nevis II in the 1970s, went on to win the Grand National in England.
The greatest of the four-legged athletes is, in my opinion Winton. I was 10 years old when I stood on a grassy hill overlooking the four–mile, 22-fence course in Worthington Valley, Baltimore County, when I saw Winton win the Triple Crown in 1946. He is the only horse to win three Maryland steeplechase races in the same year. Winton, with Stuart Janney, Jr., aboard, first won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1942 and came back after a three-year layoff for WWII to win again in 1946 and 1947.
The month of May is the beginning of America’s thoroughbred Triple Crown of flat racing. The Kentucky Derby, the nation’s most watched horse race, is run on the first Saturday in the month, May 3 this year,. The second leg of the Triple Crown is Maryland’s Preakness, the shortest of the courses, is held at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 17 this year. The longest, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont extends into June, only five weeks after the derby. This is a grueling schedule for the young three-year-olds. My hat is off, however, to the equine athletes that jump over four- and five-foot fences for three and four miles once a week three times in April.
In the early years of the Colonies, Maryland was a leader in thoroughbred racing. The first professional contest was ordered by Annapolis Mayor Benjamin Tasker, Sr., in I719. The race course, probably along West Street to Four Mile Oak, and later an oval near the present Park Place, offered silver spoons as the first trophies.
Tasker bought plantation land near present day Bowie in 1737 for Gov. Samuel Ogle and where he constructed a grand mansion, now restored and open to the public.
Both Tasker and Ogle were from northern England, the center of horse racing, and were noted horsemen who brought their passion for horses to Maryland.
Maryland’s first two top thoroughbreds, Spark and Queen Mab, given to Ogle by Lord Baltimore, came to Belair Plantation in 1848. In 1852, Benjamin Tasker, Jr., imported a daughter of the Godophin Arabian, Selima, to Belair, which became a top breeding enterprise.
Selima made her racing debut in the merry month of May, winning in Annapolis. Later the mare would walk 150 miles to win a challenge race in Virginia. Selima, the “Queen of the Turf,” is Americas greatest broodmare and the foundation of American thoroughbreds with descendants such as Lexington, Hanover and Man-o’ War. Maryland foundation horses established Belair as the “Cradle of Thoroughbred Racing.”
In honor of Selima, Laurel Race Course created the Selima Stakes in 1926 with the richest purse for fillies. Today’s richest Maryland purse is $1,500,000 for the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
In May it’s “mad and gay” when the second largest horse-racing crowd descends on Pimlico. The Preakness, second of the Triple Crown, began in May in 1873 with a purse of $1,000. Maryland’s Gov. Oden Bowie named the race after the winning colt, Preakness, on Pimlico’s opening in 1870. Pimlico’s first ever Spring race, the Preakness, was won by Survivor by 10 lengths, a record that stood for 131 years until 2004 when Smarty Jones won the “race for the Black-eyed Susans” by 11 1/2 lengths.
Belair was purchased in 1898 by New York banker James Woodward, an Anne Arundel County native. His nephew William Woodward would elevate the Belair stud to worldwide fame.
The Belair silks, red dots on an ivory background, were chosen from those used for 200 years by Marquis of Zetland in Yorkshire, England. Yorkshire is the home of Maryland’s proprietor founders the Calverts, Lords Baltimore and the home of the Godophin Arabian that gave rise to America’s greatest broodmare, Selima.