Dive into the Maryland Million Guide in the back of this magazine and prepare for some serious racing history.
Northern Dancer sired the first Classic winner, Herat, in 1986 – a year that included winners trained by the likes of Allen Jerkens, P.G. Johnson, Jack Van Berg and Woody Stephens. Jerry Bailey rode three winners, Vince Bracciale Jr. rode two. What a day that must have been.
Thirty-two years later, the Million is still a day. It showcases the best of the Thoroughbred industry in Maryland (the region really), lures a big crowd to Laurel Park and – if you’re like me – makes you look back. This year’s race day is Oct. 20. If you can get there, great. If you can’t, and there are plenty of other racing things to do that day (Far Hills for the jump set for starters…), put it on a list for the future.
Either way, take a few moments and dive into that preview guide. After you laugh at Vinnie Perrone’s feature about David Wade – whose incongruous pursuits include a red Corvette, haunted houses, talking birds, gargantuan vegetables and world-class Thoroughbreds – consider the history.
In the Classic history alone you’ll see Herat, a Claiborne-bred who raced for owner John Franks; the great Little Bold John, a Maryland-bred legend whose 1987 Classic win was one of his 25 stakes victories; doubles by Timely Warning (1990-91), Algar (1997-98), Docent (2002-03) and – more recently – Admirals War Chest (2015-16). You’ll see three consecutive wins by trainer Buddy Raines, with Master Speaker in 1989 and then Timely Warning’s back-to-back scores. Raines’ wins benefited one owner, Anderson Fowler, and three jockeys (Julie Krone, Craig Perret and Mike Luzzi).
I wonder if somebody will look back on Eighttofasttocatch’s three wins (2011, 2013, 2014) with the same reverence I use for some of those names. I hope so.
Sire names can really foster a deep dive. In the Distaff, the list starts with Double Zeus and goes on to Lord Gaylord, Rollicking, Horatius, Deputy Minister and so on. The Ladies (on turf) features Restless Native, Run the Gantlet and Dancing Count (whose daughter Countus In won the race three consecutive times). No stallion enjoyed more Maryland Million success than Not For Love, but did you know he sired the winner of the Turf in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 – and none were repeats? Just to prove that wasn’t it, his son Spartianos won the race in 2017. And, the Northview Stallion Station fixture (who died in 2016) has sired the winners of six Classics. Three times his sons and daughters won four races on a single Million card. Will he add to his total of 36 Million winners this year? Don’t bet against it.
Time does funny things to you, because I stop and ponder the older names – Salutely, Oh Say, King’s Bishop, Christopher R., Jolly Johu and the others more than the more recent sires. Someday, somebody will see Not For Love’s record and mutter, “That must have been something back then,” so appreciate what we’re seeing.
Invariably, the “best-ever” conversation gets going. Who’s the best horse to win a Maryland Million race? If somebody asks you that question, try to change the subject because there’s no right answer. Fortunately, there’s also no wrong answer as long as you get to the greats – Awad, Ben’s Cat, Eighttofasttocatch, La Reine’s Terms, Mz. Zill Bear (who won three Ladies in a row), Safely Kept and some others I’m failing to grasp.
That small group is in alphabetical order by the way, but the last might have the biggest claim to make. Bred in Maryland, by David and JoAnn Hayden, the bay won the Distaff as a 3-year-old filly in 1989 and repeated the feat in 1990 and 1991 for owners Barry Weisbord and Jayeff B Stable and trainer Alan Goldberg. The daughter of Horatius won eight of nine as a 3-year-old, the only loss coming in the season finale against older males in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1 en route to champion sprinter honors. She gained her revenge the next year, winning the Breeders’ Cup while taking eight of her 10 starts. She won five times in 1991, completing the three-peat in the Distaff while carrying 130 pounds (to 118 for her nearest rival).
In all, Safely Kept won 24 of 31 starts, earned just shy of $2.2 million, ultimately joined racing’s Hall of Fame and made the Maryland Million proud.
Can’t wait to see what’s next.