In August of 1869, Maryland Governor Oden Bowie was at a dinner party in Saratoga. He enjoyed the convivial evening so much that he promised that he would build a track at home in Maryland to host a commemorative race: The Dinner Party Stakes. A horse named Preakness won the first running of the Dinner Party, and lent his name to the Preakness Stakes, run and won for the first time in 1873 by a horse called Survivor. That dinner party gave racing the Preakness; the Dinner Party morphed into the Dixie Stakes.
Other American graded stakes races–both those begun before and after Bowie’s party–have similarly storied histories to their names. Many, of course, are simply named for horses or racing professionals. The Ruffian Handicap, the Mother Goose Stakes, the Ogden Phipps, the Travers, the Pat O’Brien. (The Withers Stakes is named after a person–owner and breeder David Dunham Withers–although it sounds like it’s named after, well, a horse’s withers.) But then there are more allusively named contests, such as the Stephen Foster Handicap, run at Churchill Downs since 1982. Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” which causes people to tear up every year at Kentucky Derby time. (Some big names have won the Stephen Foster, including Curlin and Saint Liam.)
The oldest stakes race is a debatable title, but some argue for the Phoenix, which started as the Phoenix Hotel Handicap in 1831. (The Phoenix Hotel was a famous Lexintgon hotel for horseplayers; its chandeliers hang in the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville today.) Similarly commercial names today somehow don’t sound quite as poetic. (Perhaps that’s because the Phoenix Hotel was the honoree of its race, while today companies are sponsors.) There’s the Lexus Raven Run, the Winstar Galaxy Stakes, the Early Times Mint Julep Handicap, Central Bank Transylvania Stakes.
The names of distaff races–those held for fillies and mares–hold special interest. There’s a tradition of these races being named for historically significant women. The Jenny Wiley, for example, sounds like it could be named either for a horse or for a racing professional–”And it’s Jenny Wiley by a nose!”–or, “There was never a steward who understood the niceties of racing regulation like Dr. Jenny Wiley,”–but Jenny Wiley, it turns out, was actually a Kentucky pioneer. In 1789, Native Americans killed her children, and captured her and her fifteen-month-old. She escaped, and went on to raise another family. (There’s a state park in Kentucky named for her, as well.)
Another woman of historical importance, Barbara Fritchie, gave her name to a stakes race run at Maryland’s Laurel Park. (There’s also Barbara Fritchie pie, which we here in the mid-Atlantic refer to as one kind of “chess” pie, meaning one with a sweet, not-quite-custardy filling). And Fritchie herself is an apt symbol of Maryland, the border state. She became famous during the Civil War, when at ninety-five years old she stood in the street in Frederick, Maryland, waving a Union flag as Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate soldiers marched through town. Since Maryland housed so many southern sympathizers, her gesture was particularly brazen. John Greenleaf Whitter wrote a poem about her, and the race that takes her name is a distaff run since 1952. The Molly Pitcher, a Grade 2 at Monmouth, is named after another female war hero, although many believe Molly Pitcher is actually more of a legend, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. As the story goes, she brought water to parched soldiers during the 1778 Battle of Monmouth. When her soldier husband was wounded, she took his place at the cannon. The Molly Pitcher Stakes made history itself; in 1951, it was the first race shown on television in color.
In addition to naming races for headstrong women whose actions placed them in the history books is the just-as-strong pattern of naming races for a more traditional system of social presentation. Along these lines, there are the Cotillion Handicap, a Grade 2 race for 3-year-old fillies, and the Del Mar Debutante for 2-year-olds. Once female horses have been graduated from these, they can join their sisters in the Spinster Stakes, a Grade 1 at Keeneland that is part of the Breeder’s Cup series. (Azeri won this one in 2004 with Pat Day aboard.)
Recently, there was a flurry of re-naming races, including the historic Yellow Ribbon Stakes, for Santa Anita’s fall meet. “The new names are a curious mix, some acknowledging the history of the sport in Southern California, others seemingly whimsical,” wrote Jay Privman in Daily Racing Form. The new names are a far cry from cotillions and debutantes; horses at Santa Anita will run in the L.A. Woman and the Surfer Girl.
Reading over lists of race names offers insight into the way in which so many horses and people have contributed to American Thoroughbred racing; the winners of those races, in turn, often go on to title their own new races. Citation won the Sysonby mile, and horses at Hialeah competed in the Citation Stakes.
It seems so natural if you understand that summer gathering in 1869. Governor Bowie raises his glass. Next, a dark bay colt wins the Dinner Party, and soon enough there’s a Preakness to be run.