In the years before people could watch sporting events on their phones, families huddled around their televisions to watch Jim McKay. As the host of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," McKay, who spent time living in Maryland, brought little-known events such as cliff diving and ski jumping to millions of Americans. McKay also served as the voice of ABC's Olympic coverage for decades.
His impactful broadcasting career took him all over the world, but in many ways McKay never left home. After returning from the 1984 Breeders' Cup, the horse racing enthusiast conceived the idea of an event that featured Maryland-sired horses with purses and awards totaling $1 million. Two years after McKay's initial suggestion, the first showcase of its kind in the nation became a reality. On Oct. 18, 1986, the inaugural Maryland Million Day was held at Laurel Park.
"Jim thought it would be great to do something like the Breeders' Cup in Maryland," said Darlington, Md.,-based trainer Bill Boniface, who trained many award-winning horses during his 50-year career and worked with McKay and former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang. "The seed money started with the stallions' nominations. We also had to get sponsorship, and that's where Jim really came in. Jim was a very good person, and he never forgot that he was from Maryland. He was a real ambassador for Maryland horse racing."
The event has been known as Jim McKay Maryland Million Day since 2009. The 29th running of the 11-race program will take place Oct. 18 at Laurel Park.
"It's become the second biggest racing day in the state, after the Preakness," Boniface said. "From the start, it got good support from the stallion owners. And it continues to get that support."
The event was popular from its inception. Commonly known as "Maryland's Day at the Races," it has drawn more than 612,000 spectators to Laurel Park and Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course. A crowd of 20,103 attended the first Maryland Million in 1986, and the attendance grew steadily to an all-time high of 26,788 in 2007. The event drew 18,036 racing fans last fall.
"It originally was designed to go back and forth [between Laurel Park and Pimlico]," Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Million, said.
Laurel Park became the race day's permanent home in 2005.
"We found out that it worked better at Laurel," said Boniface, whose horses won three Maryland Million races in 1987.
The wider turf course and the track's location between Baltimore and Washington are the primary reasons for keeping the event at Laurel, he explained.
The race has also attracted some of the sport's most successful jockeys. Jerry Bailey, who rode Smart Halo to victory in the first Maryland Million, has spent time in the winner's circle, along with Julie Krone, Kent Desormeaux, Edgar Prado and Rosie Napravnik. Four horses have won the Maryland Million Classic twice, including Timely Warning (1990 and 1991), Algar (1997 and 1998), Docent (2002 and 2003) and Eighttofasttocatch (2011 and 2013).
Since its debut 28 years ago, a total of 20 other states and Canada have started special racing days modeled on the Jim McKay Maryland Million.
"It's a special event because we're showing off local horses," said Boniface, who trained 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony. "The Maryland Million represented the first time that a state had ever put on this kind of event. It gives us a day to highlight horse racing to the people of Maryland."