On a late summer evening in 1868, an agreement among sportsmen to stage a special race to commemorate a memorable occasion became the foundation for the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.
Governor Oden Bowie of Maryland, a horsemen and racing entrepreneur, was among the distinguished roster of guests at an elegant dinner party after the races at the Union Hall Hotel in Saratoga given by Milton H. Sanford, who had gained much of his wealth selling blankets during the Civil War. John Hunter of New York proposed that the feast be commemorated by a stake race to be run in the fall of 1870 for three-year old colts and fillies at two miles, to be known as the Dinner Party Stakes in honor of the evening. Bowie electrified the gathering by suggesting a purse of $15,000, a staggering sum in those days.
Governor Bowie requested that the Dinner Party Stakes be run in Maryland, and pledged to build a new racetrack to host it. Hence, the idea for Pimlico Race Course was born, and in the fall of 1870, the inaugural Dinner Party Stakes was run on Pimlico’s opening. Won by Sanford’s Preakness, one of only two male entrants in the seven horse field, the massive bay colt was a first time starter. His jockey, Billy Hayward, followed a unique tradition of the day after the race: a wire was stretched across the track from the judges’ stand with a small silk bag filled with gold pieces. When the race was over, the winning jockey untied the string holding the bag and claimed the money. It is believed this custom brought about the modern day “wire” at the finish line, and the designation of “purse” money. […]