Say Black-Eyed Susan to a Marylander and one of two things generally comes to mind: the famous Preakness cocktail or the flower. But tohorse-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.