Survivor: Forgotten star of the first Preakness
A crowd of 12,000 was on hand at Pimlico Race Course in 1873 for the first running of one of America’s most iconic races
By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director
The Preakness Stakes was first contested in 1873, six years after the inaugural Belmont Stakes, and two years before the maiden running of the Kentucky Derby. It was a time of healing in America. The country was slowly being stitched back together both physically and emotionally during the Reconstruction period in the aftermath of the Civil War. Thoroughbred racing was on the ascent and playing a significant role in the new America. State officials in Maryland — which had a distinguished racing history and traced its Jockey Club’s origins to 1743 — desired a piece of the post-war turf action.
Located in northwest Baltimore, Pimlico Race Course was built precisely for such a grand occasion as the foundational Preakness. The track opened Oct. 25, 1870, only two years after Maryland Gov. Oden Bowie announced at a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., dinner party his state was developing plans to construct a spectacular new venue for racing. To christen Pimlico, Gov. Bowie offered a staggering purse of $15,000 for an event called the Dinner Party Stakes. Named in honor of the Saratoga gathering at which the plans for the new track were revealed, the Dinner Party Stakes was won by Milton Sanford’s great horse Preakness, a son of the mighty sire Lexington. Recognizing the significance of the occasion, Gov. Bowie decided the name Preakness should be recognized annually.
On Tuesday, May 27, 1873, Pimlico played host to the first Preakness Stakes. Seven horses went to the post for the 1½-mile event for 3-year-olds, the second of three races on the card. Gov. Bowie owned the race’s heavy favorite, Catesby, who had set records at both Pimlico and Saratoga the prior year as a juvenile. The field also included the duo Oaklands and Periwinkle from the powerful stable of August Belmont I, as well as Artist, who was owned by prominent Kentucky turfman H. P. McGrath. Little was expected of the entries Joe Johnson, John Boulger, and Survivor.
The inaugural Preakness was contested on a warm spring day. The majority of the large crowd arrived at the grounds by buggy carriage and omnibus. Some fans traveled via the Northern Central Railroad to the east and walked a mile uphill to the track.
Prior to 1873, Pimlico had been used exclusively for fall racing. Baltimore’s most prominent newspaper, The Sun, described the scene of the first spring racing day in the track’s history: “Those who had seen Pimlico only in the red and yellow tints of autumn, or remembered its clinging mud and biting winds were surprised to see it in the bright verdure of May. Spring zephyrs and a clear atmosphere and bright warm sunshine and bodily comfort were things never before associated with its elevated and exposed situation. The general verdict was therefore more than favorable. The view from the grandstand was very bright and cheerful as the grounds became animated by arrivals toward three o’clock when the sport was to begin.
“Overhead the sky and air were clear and faultless, the track was in superb order, and glittered in the sunshine like a bright girdle around the rich green grass and clover of the field. With the exception of but a few bare spots in front of the grandstand the field is covered with a carpet of verdure untouched by the scythe of the season, except to mark the track of Friday’s steeplechase. All the buildings on the ground appeared in tip top order and were gay with the blue and white pennants of the Maryland Jockey Club.”
This glorious day — and the first chapter of Preakness history — belonged to the unheralded Survivor, an afterthought maiden at odds of 11-1 who was owned by John Chamberlin, a prominent hotel builder and founder of the original Monmouth Park.
A bay colt bred in Kentucky by John M. Clay at Ashland Stud and sold to Chamberlin for $1,000, Survivor was winless in a pair of starts as a 2-year-old. The Preakness was the first race of his sophomore campaign. Trained by A. Davis Pryor, Survivor was ridden in the Preakness by 22-year-old Englishman George Barbee — a future Hall of Fame member — in Chamberlin’s colors of white with red spots and red cap. Pryor was the son of the famous trainer J. B. Pryor, conditioner of the great Lexington. The Preakness represented the first time the younger Pryor ever started a horse in America.
At the drop of the flag, Periwinkle shot to the lead and owned a three-length advantage a quarter-mile into the 1½-mile contest. He held that position until tiring with a half-mile remaining. The favored Catesby then took the lead and appeared primed to live up to his advance billing. Survivor, however, was lurking and put his head in front midway through the stretch. Barbee then found another gear and Survivor put Catesby away with ease, widening the margin until he was clear a whopping 10 lengths at the finish. John Boulanger passed tiring horses to finish second. It was another 10 lengths back to Artist in third, who was three lengths ahead of the disappointing Catesby. The final time was 2:43 on a track rated slow. A jubilant Chamberlin took home $1,850 of the $2,050 purse. Survivor’s margin of victory stood as the Preakness record until Smarty Jones won the 2004 edition by 11½ lengths.
“Great credit is due to Davis Pryor for the way in which Survivor was sent to the post,” commented the Spirt of the Times. “He was full of muscle and looked as fit as man’s hands could make him.”
Survivor didn’t accomplish much else of note during his racing career. Following the Preakness, he finished fourth in the Monmouth Cup, which was won by Wanderer (Preakness, who was still racing gallantly as a 7-year-old, finished second). Survivor won a match race and the Sequel Stakes at Monmouth that summer and a small purse at Jerome Park. After missing the 1874 season because of an injury, Survivor returned to the track as a 5-year-old in 1875 for new owner A. M. Burton. He raced 21 times that year, winning seven but nothing of note. In his final year on the track, Survivor won five of eight starts in 1876, competing for small purses in Louisiana and South Carolina. Overall, Survivor made 37 starts and won 16 times.
As the Preakness was beginning to develop into an event of national prestige — standouts such as Hall of Famers Tom Ochiltree and Duke of Magenta won the race in the 1870s — the name Survivor became merely a footnote. Fame, in the instance of Survivor, was certainly fleeting.
On April 13, 1878, the New Orleans Democrat reported the following: “Survivor, the famous race horse, died recently at Napoleon, La.”
That was it. Five years after his one shining moment in the foundational Preakness, Survivor had a legacy that amounted to all of one sentence.
Such is history sometimes.
Lifespan: 1870 ̶ 1878
Pedigree: Vandal—Millie J, by Lexington
Breeder: John M. Clay
Owner: 1. John F. Chamberlain; 2. A. M. Burton
Trainer: A. Davis Pryor
Career dates: 1872 ̶ 1876
Record: 37 starts, 16 wins
- Won the inaugural Preakness Stakes 1873
- Won the Sequel Stakes 1873 (Monmouth)