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Developer returns first Preakness ‘owner’s trophy’ to Baltimore

Developer returns first Preakness ‘owner’s trophy’ to Baltimore

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The first Preakness 'owner's trophy.' (Doyle Auctions)
The first Preakness ‘owner’s trophy.’ (Doyle Auctions)

A prominent developer has brought the original Preakness Stakes “owner’s trophy” back to Baltimore.

Edward St. John, chairman of the board of St. John Properties, purchased the trophy from Doyle Auctions in New York, and the auctioneer announced the sale price as $100,000.  The trophy was awarded to Alfred G. Vanderbilt II, one-time owner and twice president of Pimlico Race Course, following his horse Native Dancer’s victory in 1953. St. John, his company said, wanted to return the symbol of Maryland’s racing heritage.

St. John grew up on Reisterstown Road not far from Pimlico and remembers attending the race as a child. Somewhere in his home, he said, there’s a photo of him as a 3-year-old boy on a white horse, flanked by his father and his grandfather, who was visiting from Philadelphia to attend the Preakness Stakes. His earliest memories of the race are primarily of a lot of yelling and screaming.

“It was a big circus to me,” St. John said.

The Preakness owner’s trophy evolved from the Woodlawn Vase. The 36-inch-tall trophy dates back to 1860 and is made from Tiffany & Co. silver. The vase is considered one of the most valuable sports trophies in the world and is reportedly insured for about $4 million.

Originally created for the Woodlawn Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, the vase was buried during the Civil War for safekeeping and passed from track to track after being unearthed. In 1917, the vase became the winner’s trophy for the Preakness Stakes held at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

The “perpetual trophy” was awarded annually to the winner of that year’s Preakness Stakes. In 1953, Jeanne Murray Vanderbilt, Alfred’s wife, lent the trophy to the Baltimore Museum of Art for one year so the public could see the memento. St. John said Jeanne Murray Vanderbilt’s motivation’s for donating the trophy wasn’t so much philanthropic as she didn’t want the “big ole’ trophy” taking up space in her New York home.

While the Woodlawn Vase was on display in Baltimore it was decided that a replica of the trophy, made by Baltimore’s Schofield Co., would be presented to the owner of future race winners to keep. The trophy St. John purchased at auction is the oldest of these trophies.

The 1970 trophy, awarded to the owners of Personality, is the only other owner’s trophy known to have been sold. Paul Winicki, of Radcliffe Jewelers, owns that trophy, St. John said. Winicki alerted St. John to the auction and was commissioned to secure the 1953 trophy.

Edward St. John
Edward St. John

St. John has a connection to the Vanderbilt family because he owns Sagamore Farm’s original manor house in Baltimore County, which the Vanderbilts designed and lived in. Native Dancer retired to stud at the farm and is buried on property, St. John said. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank also owns a portion of Vanderbilt’s old Sagamore Farm, and has revived horse racing there via his Sagamore Racing operation.

There are no immediate plans for the trophy, but St. John said it’s been suggested it be placed at the Maryland Historical Society, which holds the Woodlawn Vase.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” St. John said.

The return of the trophy comes as the future of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore remains in doubt. Concerns about the viability of Pimlico, in addition to the current owner’s potential interest in moving the race to Laurel Park, have contributed to speculation the race may leave the city.

Baltimore elected officials and business leaders have vowed to keep the race at Pimlico. Renovations needed to keep the Preakness Stakes at the track, according to the first phase of a Maryland Stadium Authority study, are expected to cost between $248 million and $321 million. Any overhaul of the track probably would require a public-private partnership.

Despite the potential development opportunity at Pimlico, St. John said he hasn’t given any thought to the issue, adding that kind of urban project is outside of St. John Properties’ wheelhouse.

“We’re more county developers,” he said.

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