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Ladies’ Night

A little-known race before the Preakness is all about estrogen—and it’s catching on.

Say Black-Eyed Susan to a Marylander and one of two things generally comes to mind: the famous Preakness cocktail or the flower. But to horse-racing aficionados, it can mean only one thing—the race held the day before Preakness and quite possibly, Pimlico’s best-kept secret.

Although it is one of the oldest races run at Old Hilltop and is the second biggest day on the Maryland racing calendar in terms of purses and attendance, the Black-Eyed Susan has been largely lost in the frenzy and revelry of its Triple Crown counterpart. But if the Maryland Jockey Club has its way, that’s about to change.

Now celebrating its 95th year, the Black-Eyed Susan is a graded stakes race for 3-year-old fillies run over a mile and one-eighth. It is the headlining race of the day before the Preakness Stakes that also includes the running of the historic Pimlico Special. Originally called the Pimlico Oaks, the race changed its name in 1952. Each leg of the Triple Crown has its own filly race day, starting with the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby and wrapping up with the Acorn Stakes at Belmont. Unofficially, this series is called the “Filly Triple Crown.”

“To understand the coupling of 3-year-old filly and colt races, you probably have to go back to their origins in England,” explains Allan Carter, historian at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, NY. During the 1788 race meeting at Epson Downs, the 12th Earl of Derby, a prominent racing official, decided that rather than hold the usual two- to four-mile heats for older horses, he would have a race only for 3-year-old fillies. He called the race the Oak, the name of one of his estates.

“The race was such a success that Lord Derby . . . decided to hold a similar race for 3-year-old colts in 1790,” says Carter. “When Churchill Downs decided to run the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, they continued the English tradition of having a similar race for fillies and named it the Kentucky Oaks.”

While the horse sexes have sometimes been kept separate in the racing world in the U.S., it’s not because colts and geldings are necessarily faster. In 139 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, for instance, only 39 fillies ran in the race, but they do win occasionally against the guy horses. And many fillies are in the national racing hall of fame, including Genuine Risk (who won the Kentucky Derby in 1980), 1988 Derby winner Winning Colors, Sky Beauty, and, of course, Ruffian. And a filly won the Preakness in 2009—Rachel Alexandra. In each case, however, the filly’s owner must decide if the horse’s personality is dominant enough in a colts-dominated race, or if she’d do better in a fillies race.

For many years, the Black-Eyed Susan’s success was weather-dependent, a sibling lost in the shadow of Big Brother Preakness. If 22,000 spectators showed up on a sunny day, it was considered a success. But in 2010, that began to change.

Mike Gathagan, VP of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club, explains that the mandate came down from president Tom Chuckas to build Black-Eyed Susan Day into something more substantial. The reasoning is mostly practical: There’s a limit to the number of people who can fit in Pimlico on Preakness Day. Black-Eyed Susan provides the same quality of racing and the fun, party atmosphere one gets on Saturday, but without the crushing crowds. Building a market for Black-Eyed Susan was an opportunity to spread Preakness fever to a broader audience.

Since it’s a day for fillies, it made sense to connect the race with women’s causes, a tactic that was already successful with the Kentucky Oaks, where “Pink Out!” is the theme of the day. Five years ago, the Jockey Club connected with the Maryland affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, offering special events like a turfside luncheon for breast-cancer survivors and a fashion show.

“Everyone is familiar with the Race for the Cure,” says Robin Prothro, CEO of Komen Maryland, “But they aren’t as familiar with our third-party events like Black-Eyed Susan. It’s a large event that reaches an audience we don’t necessarily reach through our typical venues.” She says it’s also been a great way to have a visible presence in the Pimlico neighborhood, an area that has high-incidence rates of breast cancer. More than $200,000 has been donated to Komen Maryland since the partnership began in 2010.

Black-Eyed Susan is evolving and so, too, is the relationship with Komen. This year, Chuckas announced that Black-Eyed Susan Day will be branded as “the ultimate girls’ day out.” As part of the rebranding effort, the Jockey Club is adding a second charity partner, Suited to Succeed, which provides business attire for disadvantaged women. It and Komen will share a percentage of the race-day proceeds.
“This is an opportunity to recruit and engage a younger audience by making a positive impact in the community,” says Chuckas in a press statement. “We are going to pick a different charity each year in hopes of broadening the brand.”

Spectators at this year’s race can expect a lot more than just action on the track. There’s a festival featuring women-owned and women-focused vendors in the infield. There’s going to be an attempt to break the current Guinness World Record for the largest group doing the musical exercise program Zumba, and actress Mariel Hemingway will be the keynote speaker at a Women in Business Networking Gala and Luncheon co-hosted with the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce. Each Black-Eyed Susan Day, there’s a challenge race where jockeys accrue points based on how they place over four races and the jock with the most points at the end of the day walks away with $20,000, with another $30,000 split between second- to seventh-place winners.

Last year, the challenge theme was a battle of the sexes. This year, it will be for active hall-of-fame riders, including Calvin Borel, Edgar Prado, and Gary Stevens. In the evening, Counting Crows and The Fray will headline a concert in the infield. Last year’s performance by the Goo Goo Dolls pushed full-day attendance to a record high.

Perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser is the Lady Legends for the Cure Race. In keeping with the girl-power theme of the day, it’s a six-furlong sprint with retired female jockeys in the saddle. This is no mere jog around the track for a bunch of old women: The race draws ladies who were pioneers in the sport and puts them back in the saddle at break-neck speed. The roster for this May includes Patti Cooksey, the first woman to ride in the Preakness; Cheryl White, the first female African-American jockey; and Barbara Jo Rubin, who, in 1969, became the first woman to ever win a race in the United States. The Lady Legends riders join other jockeys in an autograph session before the day’s races start, an event that is big with fans.

Maryland’s own Andrea Seefeldt Knight will be in this year’s Legends race. The first woman to win the Pennsylvania Derby, Seefeldt Knight was the second female jockey to ride in the Preakness and the third to ride in the Derby. She retired in 1994 and says getting back in the saddle is no small feat. “What makes it worth two months of agony getting fit enough is the thrill of riding a race on a big day of racing with the crowd cheering us on,” she says. “It’s a chance to step back in time.”

Seefeldt Knight echoes the feelings of many horseracing insiders when she says, “Black-Eyed Susan Day is my favorite day of the two. It’s an exciting day with good racing and a great, family atmosphere. The top jockeys, owners, and trainers are there with some of the best horses in the country, and it’s not crazy crowded like Preakness.”

In Kentucky, the Oaks is hugely popular and an unofficial holiday in Louisville. More than 100,000 people attend and many schools and businesses close for the day. Gathagan says the plan is to continue to grow the Black-Eyed Susan, and he hopes some day a little of that local pride might catch on here in Baltimore.

“In Louisville, they always say the Oaks is for Kentucky and the Derby is for the rest of the country,” says Gathagan. “I think that’s something we might strive for here, too.”