By Phil Janack, for the Maryland Jockey Club – From the Alibi Breakfast to the blanket of handmade Black-Eyed Susans to the painting of the infield cupola’s weathervane in the colors of its winner, the Preakness Stakes is an event that revels in tradition. The last Preakness Not Run in May Came in 1945
First run in 1873 it is the second-oldest of the three Triple Crown races, predating the Kentucky Derby by two years. Pimlico Race Course, first opened in 1870 as the country’s second racetrack behind Saratoga, has been the continuous home of the Preakness for more than a century.
Over the years, tradition has been tested by circumstance. In 1890, the Preakness was run at Morris Park in the Bronx on the same program as the Belmont Stakes. Following an absence of three years, the Preakness resumed in 1894 and spent 15 years at Gravesend Race Track in Coney Island before returning to Pimlico in 1909.
Now known as The Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness was run prior to the Derby 11 times and twice, in 1917 and 1922, both were held the same day. The Belmont has been run before the Preakness 11 times until 1931, when the current order of Triple Crown races was established. The five-week spacing between them was put in place in 1969.
This year, with the racing landscape altered due to the global coronavirus pandemic, tradition is being tested once again. Instead of its familiar place on the third Saturday in May, the 145th Preakness will likely be contested outside the month for the first time in 75 years.
Six times in its history, the Preakness has been run in June. Five came during its stay in New York (1890, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1908). The other is the only time it has been run in June in Baltimore, and the most recent – June 16, 1945.
The United States was still embroiled in World War II when 1945 began, and just three days into the New Year horse racing was banned nationwide by Jimmy Byrnes, the former congressman, senator and Supreme Court justice who was serving as director of the Office of War Mobilization in Washington, D.C.
Byrnes, who had tried to shut down racing two years prior, saw its continuation as a waste of resources – gas and tire rubber used to transport horses to racetracks, money wagered on races instead of invested in war bonds, and valuable manpower at tracks and horse farms who could instead be serving their country overseas.
On May 7, 1945, following bloody conflicts at the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima, Germany surrendered to end the war. The ban on racing was quickly lifted, and track officials scrambled to reassemble the Triple Crown. Seven days after the rescheduled Derby was held on June 9, it was the Preakness’ turn.
In previous years, the Preakness was the lone attraction on closing day of Pimlico’s spring meet, which in 1945 ran from May 16 to 26. Once the new Derby date was set, Maryland Jockey Club president Henry A. Parr III secured June 16 as a one-day spectacle of five stakes on an eight-race program with the Preakness as its centerpiece – an unheard of assemblage that is commonplace today. It is the latest date on which the Preakness has ever been run.
Parr decided to go ‘whole hog’ in giving turf patrons something out of the ordinary, and he has set up a card which may be referred to as the ‘Dream Program!’ the Daily Racing Form wrote in its June 9, 1945 editions.
“All seats have been sold for weeks, luncheon reservations have been swamped, the H.M. Stevens Company, caterers, and all other signs pointing to a record-smashing afternoon,” the DRF wrote. “Delaware Park and Charles Town, the two tracks closest to Pimlico, have shown fine sportsmanship in closing their plants for the day, thus giving all those connected with the game a chance to take in the special presentation. The move also enables Pimlico to staff its plant competently for the day.”
In addition to the 55th Preakness for 3-year-olds, with a purse of $50,000, the June 16 card included the $30,000 Dixie Handicap for 3-year-olds and up, run at the Preakness’ 1 3 /16-mile distance; $20,000 Pimlico Oaks, now known as the Black-Eyed Susan, for 3-year-old fillies; $5,000 Jennings Handicap for 3-year-olds and up sprinting six furlongs; and $5,000 Pimlico Nursery Stakes at 4 ½ furlongs for 2-year-olds. Three overnight races completed the card.
“The concentration of rich stakes, including the Preakness, Oaks and Dixie, is quite the most remarkable program within our recollection,” DRF columnist Charles Hatton wrote June 11, 1945.
Wrote fellow DRF columnist Nelson Dunstan on June 13, 1945: “The Pimlico officials went to the limit to give Maryland fans what probably will be the finest one-day meeting staged at any track during the present century.”
The main draw for the Preakness was Fred Hooper’s Hoop Jr., so dominant a winner of the Kentucky Derby that many experts proclaimed him a sure bet for the Triple Crown. His trainer, Ivan Parke, said the colt made the 22-hour trip from Louisville to Baltimore “like a ‘drummer,’ the DRF wrote June 14, 1945. “He’s as fit right now as he can ever hope to be.”
Hoop Jr. would need a new rider, however, as Eddie Arcaro – aboard in the Derby – was committed to ride Devil Diver for his contract employer, Greentree Stable, in the Suburban Handicap on the same day at Belmont Park – a race he would win. Al Snider, who won the Top Flight Handicap on Miss Keeneland between the Derby and Preakness, got the call.
Hall of Fame trainer Ben Jones decided that Calumet Farm’s Pot o’ Luck, unable to beat Hoop Jr. in the Derby, would not make the trip to Baltimore for the Preakness. Hoop Jr.’s chief competition was expected to come from Walter Jeffords’ Pavot, the 2-year-old champion of 1944.
Pavot went 8-0 during his juvenile campaign including seven stakes victories but a minor foot problem affected his training and delayed his sophomore debut until June 6, three days before the Derby, in the Withers. Typically run between the Preakness and Belmont but pushed up in the adjusted post-war schedule, the Withers would see Mrs. P.A.B. Widener’s Polynesian spoil Pavot’s season opener.
Three days before the Preakness, Pavot indicated his readiness for the race with a 1 3/16-mile breeze in 1:59 1/5 – matching Pensive’s winning time from 1944 – “and the Pimlico strip was not quite at its best,” the DRF wrote June 14, 1945. “There was no urging of the colt at any stage, and it was no secret that trainer Oscar White was delighted with the showing of his charge.”
George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to victory over 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral in the 1938 Pimlico Special – dubbed “The Match of the Century” – would ride Pavot in the Preakness. Wayne Wright, up in the Withers, earned a return assignment aboard Polynesian.
Hoop Jr. and Pavot drew most of the attention of fans and horseplayers alike, going off as $1.35-1 co-favorites. Their seven rivals all went off at double-digit odds, the shortest being Polynesian’s 12-1.
“Experts narrow the event down to one of these two horses,” Dunstan wrote June 17, 1945, “but if there should be an upset it might be in favor of Polynesian, who ran a splendid race to defeat Pavot in the Withers.”
Pavot and Hoop Jr. would break side-by-side from Post 1 and 2, respectively, with Polynesian in Post 7. Post 6 would hold Darby Dieppe. His owner, Mrs. Willie G. Lewis, and her husband canceled plans to attend the Preakness after being informed by the War Department that their son-in-law, Capt. William A. Kelley, had been reported missing in action in the Pacific area. Instead, the DRF reported June 15, 1945 that they remained behind with their daughter in Evarts, Ky.
In the days leading up to the Preakness, large crowds would come out to watch the contenders breeze. Darby Dieppe followed Pavot’s sharp move with his own on the Thursday before the race, while Hoop Jr. had his final tuneup Preakness eve.
“Unlike blasé New Yorkers, the free-staters are interested in morning works, and several hundred railbirds assemble here each morning to see the trials,” Hatton wrote in June 15, 1945. “Pavot’s was a boon to this Preakness, injecting a competitive element into what had all the earmarks of a walkover for Hoop Jr.”
According to Hatton in the June 19, 1945 DRF, concessions and wagering machinery were moved overnight from Delaware Park to Pimlico for Preakness Day. “A crew of 35 moved the 50,000-pound ‘tote’ apparatus, while scores of chefs and waiters defrosted and cut up several hundred turkeys [and] hens, sliced sandwiches and iced beer and soft drinks in the night.”
The 55th Preakness, the sixth of eight races and third of five stakes, followed by the Oaks and Jennings, went off at 4:13 p.m.
“Through the backstretch it was Polynesian rating along at a lively clip, prompted by The Doge, who was holding on more stubbornly than almost anybody hoped, while right behind these two Hoop Jr. and Pavot raced side by side. The rider on each of these favorites was intent on moving as the other made his run,” the DRF wrote June 18, 1945. “Curving for home they inaugurated their runs together outside The Doge and Polynesian. All the racing was from the eighth pole home.
“Pavot tired and swerved in behind The Doge, who began flying distress signals. Hoop Jr. was placed to extreme pressure in a futile attempt to reach Polynesian. The latter retaliated by drawing away. Darby Dieppe, a confirmed rail and stretch runner, found a hole on the inside and moved to Hoop Jr. the final yards. Hoop Jr. was hard urged to withstand him for the place as Polynesian scudded under the wire a winner by daylight. The others were never really in the race.”
Polynesian raced to a front-running 2 ½-length victory over Hoop Jr. in 1:58 4/5 over a fast main track, returning $26. Hoop Jr. held on by a neck over Darby Dieppe despite suffering a career-ending tendon injury in his left foreleg during the race, and it was another neck back to The Doge in fourth.
“We were not in enough trouble to make any difference,” Snider told the DRF. “My horse pulled up lame.”
Pavot wound up fifth, beaten a total of five lengths in his second straight defeat. He would go on to win the Belmont Stakes, with Arcaro up.
“No excuses,” Woolf told DRF. “He simply wasn’t there.”
Attendance on Preakness Day was 24,096. Total mutuel pool was $1,600,040 (more than $22.9 million in 2020 dollars), with handle on the Preakness coming in at $347,343 ($4.98 million) – a record for a single race at Pimlico.
“While nearly all of us took a dim view of Polynesian’s conquest of Pavot in the Withers, it now seems clear that he is simply a better 3-year-old than is the 1944 juvenile leader,” Hatton wrote June 19, 1945. “And whereas many were conceding Hoop Jr. the American ‘Triple Crown’ following his hollow Derby victory, he forfeited his opportunity in sad fashion when he fell lame in the Preakness. The Hoop must, incidentally, be a colt of a great deal of ‘moxie’ to have finished second on three legs at Baltimore.”
In the post-Preakness ceremony, MJC president Parr awarded the treasured Woodlawn Vase to Mrs. P.A.B. Widener, owner of Polynesian and daughter-in-law of late internationally famed sportsman and art collector Joseph E. Widener, one-time owner of Belmont Park and builder of Hialeah Park in Florida.
“In the enclosure was Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe,” the DRF wrote June 18, 1945, “who sent the now famous communique ‘Nuts!’ to the Germans at Bastogne.”
Also on the Preakness Day program, Lady Gunner captured the Nursery in 53 seconds for her third straight win, just two-fifths of a second off the track record; Woolf piloted 1946 champion handicap mare Gallorette to a popular win in the Oaks immediately following the main event; Director J. E. captured the Jennings by 3 ½ lengths; and Rounders was an easy winner of the Dixie in 1:56 4/5 – two seconds faster than Polynesian ran in the Preakness and two-fifths shy of the course record.
Of note, Dunstan pointed out in his June 19, 1945 column that William Helis’ Rounders, who defeated 1941 Triple Crown champion Whirlaway in the 1942 Arlington Handicap, won the Brandywine at Delaware two weeks prior to the Dixie. Following the Brandywine, he returned to Helis’ New Jersey farm to be bred to two mares before being sent to Baltimore for his near-record Dixie triumph. From there, he was bred to another mare at the farm, then sent to Delaware for the 1 ¼-mile Sussex Handicap, which he won the following weekend.
The Preakness was one of 29 stakes wins or placings during Polynesian’s four-year career. Trained by Morris Dixon, the brown son of Unbreakable out of Black Polly, by Polymelian, retired with a record of 58 starts, 27 wins, 10 seconds and 10 thirds and purse earnings of $310,410.
At stud, Polynesian is best known as the sire of the great Northern Dancer and is one of eight Preakness winners to have sired a Preakness winner – Native Dancer’s victory came in 1953. Polynesian has a stakes race named after him, a seven-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds and up contested during the summer at Laurel Park.