Maryland Million still brings state's racing community together
Waterford Crystal, Northern Dancer, Deputy Minister, Jim McKay. . . they all played a role back in October 1986. In various capacities, they–and dozens of other horses, humans and businesses–were part of the first Maryland Million Day.
Nobody was sure it would work. How could they be? No state had gambled so publicly on its Thoroughbred industry. Led by McKay, who’d seen it succeed at the Breeders’ Cup on a national level, Maryland did. And, man, did it work. Horses were nominated. Sponsors were secured. Owners and trainers were motivated.
The big names at Windfields Farm (see above) showed the way, but there were others–175 stallions to be exact–on the nomination list. Then came 900 horses of racing age and 700 yearlings. McKay must have let out a cheer that still hangs over My Lady’s Manor when Rich Wilcke called with the numbers.
By race day, at Laurel Park Oct. 18, 1986, the details were in place and 20,103 fans attended. For those who couldn’t, ESPN showed the races as part of a two-hour broadcast. Trainer Jack Van Berg and jockey Jerry Bailey won the first Classic with Herat, a son of Northern Dancer bred in Kentucky by Claiborne Farm and the The Gamely Corp. (they also bred the Woody Stephens-trained Turf winner Glow) and if that didn’t signal a robust future for the concept nothing would.
Little names won races too, including a Distaff score by Capp It Off for Mr. and Mrs. C. Oliver Goldsmith and trainer Greg Wilson. Staunch Maryland owner/breeder John Merryman won the Oaks with Smart ’n Quick with his daughter Katy Voss doing the training.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Maryland Million grew, adapted, went to Pimlico, came back to Laurel, added races, subtracted races and hosted its share of magical moments.
Remember Timely Warning and Master Speaker? How about Awad? Safely Kept’s three consecutive runnings of the Distaff? Algar’s back-to-back Classics? La Reine’s Terms won the Turf at age 10. Richard’s Lass laid waste to the 1991 Oaks by 14 lengths. In the Curl made seven Maryland Million starts (and never finished worse than fourth).
The Million also weathered some storms, including the new reality of smaller foal crops, fewer stallions, competition from other states, increased purses levels in open races around the country.
Through all the history, however, McKay’s concept took root, and returns this year for its 28th renewal Oct. 19 at Laurel.
The sire power isn’t what it once was, and the purses don’t lure a parade of national attention like they once did, but the mission is the same. McKay brought up the idea because he thought it would work, because he thought it mattered. The concept was to promote and showcase Maryland’s rich Thoroughbred industry.
Good or bad for Maryland, McKay’s vision started a trend. Once Maryland Million succeeded, pretty much every Thoroughbred state imitated the concept. New York has its Showcase Day. West Virginia’s has the Breeders Classics. Louisiana Cup Day is a big deal every summer. California, Kentucky, Illinois, Penn-sylvania and so on have or had showcase days for state-sired or state-bred Thoroughbreds. Because of Maryland.
The Million succeeded at the start, and still succeeds, because of the blend of horses, people, racetrack and culture. The horses come, so do the people. The industry’s leaders use Million Day as a networking session, hosting existing clients and prospective partners. Politicians are there, mingling with owners, trainers, breeders and sponsors?–?learning the game and its many moving parts. HRTV sets up a studio and puts the races on a national platform. Fans get another day to really go racing in Maryland. It’s not the Preakness, but Maryland Million Day brings a similar buzz–without the hoopla–and you can tell.
Like autumn or the seasons in general, Maryland Million always comes around. Attendance still touches 20,000. Inspiring performances still occur on the racetrack. Can Ben’s Cat set a record and win his fourth Million race this year? Without the Turf Sprint? That’s the beauty of the event, of McKay’s vision. Even his grandson, James Fontelieu (see profile in the back of this magazine), is entertaining–even a little–the idea of reviving the family breeding program.
Welcome back to Maryland Million. It was here all along.