You have to go back to 1868, not long after the Civil War, when the race was discussed, the Dinner Party Stakes as it became known at first. Maryland's Governor Oden Bowie was also a horseman and a racing entrepreneur; he was among the distinguished roster of guests at an elegant dinner party at the Union Hall Hotel in Saratoga. 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 horse named 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.
Bowie's Dinner Party Stakes would later be run at Pimlico as the Dixie Handicap (now known as the "Dixie"), and hold the honor of being the 8th oldest stakes race in America.
Two years before the Kentucky Derby would appear, Pimlico was busy introducing its new stakes race for three-year olds, the Preakness, during its first-ever spring race meet in 1873. Governor Bowie had named the mile and one-half race in honor of Dinner Party Stakes - winner, Preakness.
The scene was set for the first Preakness Stakes on Tuesday, May 27. The crowd, well aware of Bowie's accomplishments in putting Baltimore on the national Thoroughbred map, swelled to 12,000. The violet-painted stands and the Victorian Clubhouse, which survived until a fire destroyed it in 1966, were decorated with the Maryland Jockey Club blue and white pennants.
The new Preakness, off to a great start, prospered for the next 17 years. The early Preakness Stakes attracted quality horses and good crowds; however, in 1889, due to changes in the racing industry, the Preakness and Pimlico galloped to a halt. In 1890, the Preakness was run at Morris Park in New York. The Maryland Jockey Club continued to be involved in racing by presenting some steeplechasing and even trotting races at Pimlico, but the Preakness did not return home to Pimlico until 1909. During this interval, the Preakness was run for 15 years at the Gravesend track in Brooklyn, New York.
Several traditions enjoyed today are attributed to the spontaneity of the 1909 Preakness renewal. For example, the musical rendering of "Maryland My Maryland" began when a bugler, moved by the spirit of the day, began playing Maryland's historic state song. The rest of the band, inspired by the music, joined in and the crowd reacted enthusiastically. In addition, Preakness 1909 also inaugurated the concept of the "painting of the colors" atop the weather vane, to honor the winning horse.
From that day in 1909, the Preakness has run without a break each year at Pimlico, steadily growing in popularity and purse value.
The phrase "Triple Crown" was not coined until the 1930's, but it is this race on the third Saturday in May where the best of the Derby horses gather to see if there will be that window of opportunity for a Triple Crown prospect.
You can read about the history of The Woodlawn Vase here. It's the trophy that the winner gets to hold and touch for a few minutes after the race. The real one lives in a museum in Baltimore.