Off the Pace: My unforgettable first Preakness

When I entered the gates of Pimlico Race Course on May 17, 1980, I did not know what to expect. The Preakness to be run that day was the first Triple Crown event I had ever attended. 

I was with a group of fellow bankers. Bankers by nature tend to be fairly conservative, but we had heard that the party-like atmosphere of the event was special, so we were excited to at the very least take in the sounds and sights of what promised to be a good time.

Just as important to me, a budding handicapper, was the historic nature of the racing matchup that was on tap for that day. Two weeks earlier the Kentucky Derby had been won by the filly Genuine Risk. She was only the second filly that had accomplished that feat and the first in 65 years, when Regret won the 1915 Derby. 

Although the field size was small with just eight horses running, there did not appear to be much separating the top four contenders. In addition to Genuine Risk, I felt three other horses (Colonel Moran, Codex and Jaklin Klugman) were likely to get attention from the bettors and that the race was a tough handicapping puzzle. 

In 1980 the Triple Crown events were not as slickly marketed as they are today. They didn’t need to be as their tradition and history were allure enough. Over 83,000 fans attended that day. There was no musical artist, no Kegasus, no upscale infield tent. The party in the infield was organic and working class. The clubhouse had some well-heeled patrons, and the crowd was a microcosm of the demographics of Baltimore as a whole.

Our group sat on the apron so we could only see the horses as they went past us down the stretch. There was a particularly rowdy group in front of us who were using drugs as well as alcohol, and one of the guys took a swing at what appeared to be his girlfriend. Luckily he missed but he fell from the momentum of the punch and knocked himself out. That is something you don’t see everyday.


Because we had a limited view of the track, I walked around and watched some of the races on black-and-white televisions in the grandstand. The bathrooms were all working, but the lines for the women’s rooms were so long that many females used the stalls in the men’s room. When the lines for the men’s rooms bogged down, some guys publicly urinated while standing in line. That, too, is something you don’t see everyday.

The hook in the race was the filly against boys. I ultimately made a small bet on Codex. I watched the race from the apron and therefore could not see the horses on the final turn. Coming out of that turn Codex, ridden by Angel Cordero went from third to first in a blink. 

Genuine Risk, ridden by Jacinto Vasquez, went from fourth and came on the outside of Codex. The horses seemed to come together before Codex spurted clear, drawing away to win by almost five lengths.

This is where opinions start to differ. 

Cordero definitely floated Genuine Risk wide coming out of the turn. Vasquez claimed the filly had been bumped and perhaps hit by Cordero’s whip. He immediately lodged an objection after finishing 2nd to Codex. I moved from the apron to watch the track feed replay. The stewards ultimately made no change, a decision with which I concurred.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the national television crew on ABC had a different opinion. One of the broadcasters, jockey Eddie Arcaro, felt that the stewards would reverse the order, and he said so before the ruling was made. As a result, millions watching on television went away with the feeling that the filly had been bullied and cheated of her win. 

The drama and controversy stamped the 1980 Preakness as one of the most unforgettable versions of the race.

[See below for more on the Codex-Genuine Risk Preakness and its controversy]

As a postscript it should be noted that about three weeks later the Maryland Racing Commission rejected an appeal from the connections of Genuine Risk. Of particular note, a series of still photographs from a Baltimore Sun photographer showed no contact between the two runners.

I have only attended a handful of Preakness races since then including the 2021 event. None has come close to match the 1980 race in terms of seeing some very unusual events. Although I like some of the modern changes to the festivities, I honestly can say that I will never forget my first Preakness.