A revival of Maryland horse racing, along with the state's breeding industry that makes racing possible, is far from complete. However, horse racing industry loyalists have remained steadfast in their efforts to keep Maryland a top-tier thoroughbred state, and there is no clearer evidence of that perseverance than the annual Jim McKay Maryland Million, a day of premier racing that will celebrate its 30th anniversary in October.
Among all the thoroughbred racing held in Maryland -- including the famed Preakness Stakes held at Pimlico Race Course the third Saturday in May -- the Maryland Million boasts the distinction of ensuring that every horse who runs on that special day is tied to Maryland. The common thread is that to qualify to be on the track, every colt, horse, fillie and mare had to be conceived in the state, a tribute to the stallions who stand in Maryland.
The Jim McKay Maryland Million -- being held at Laurel Park Oct. 17 -- will feature 11 races and a total purse of $1 million. Post time for the first race is 12:15 p.m.
Among the day's races, the Classic, a gallop of 1 1/8th miles on dirt for 3-year-olds and up, is generally regarded as the centerpiece, mainly because it has the largest purse, $150,000 this year. But other races often prove to generate as much if not more excitement, because the fields have a tendency to be more competitive.
In recent years, Eighttofasttocatch, the now retired 9-year-old chestnut, dominated the Classic. He raced from the starting gate to the winner's circle in three of the last four Classics, including 2013 and 2014. Nicknamed “Catcher,” he was sired by Northview Stallion Station's Not For Love, the all-time Maryland Million sire with 32 winners. Northview Stallion Station is headquartered in Chesapeake City, Md.
The story has often been told about how Jim McKay, the late ABC sportscaster and longtime Maryland resident, promoted the idea of a special race day that celebrated the state's horse racing heritage. McKay was inspired when he attended the first Breeders' Cup in 1984. The Breeders' Cup, run during two days in the fall and changing tracks each year, is considered the fourth major thoroughbred racing event of the year, along with the three Triple Crown races.
With McKay leading the charge, the first Maryland Million was held in 1986, and the single-day stakes program that's now known as “Maryland's Day at the Races” immediately became the second-most important race day in the state, second only to Preakness Day. Maryland's homage to its horse racing tradition is credited with moving as many as 20 other states to develop similar racing events.
However, like horse racing in general, the Jim McKay Maryland Million has faced its challenges. Last year saw the event rally with jumps in attendance to 18,870 and in handle (total wagers) to $3.41 million. Both numbers were increases from the previous two years. The Maryland Million high-water mark was 2007, with attendance of 26,788 and handle of more than $7.8 million.
Maryland horse racing and the state's thoroughbred breeding industry have been fighting their way back from years of trying to compete with nearby states, such as Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia, that were subsidizing their racing industries with financial help from casino-generated revenues. With Maryland being the last among that cluster of states to allow casino gaming (and consequently, to funnel some gaming revenue to the racing industry), the positive effects are taking a while to be felt.
Since 2010, when the first Maryland casino opened, slot machine revenues have sent $149.2 million to a Horse Racing Purse Dedication Account and $35.4 million to Racetracks Facility Renewal Accounts. Although Maryland horse racing, in general, has been a beneficiary of that windfall, the Maryland Million itself sees only a small pass-through of some of the purse money.
Mostly, the Maryland Million purse money is put together with sponsorships and fees related to horse entries. Sponsorships, in particular, have been more difficult without the presence and influence of the event's founding visionary, McKay, who died in 2008.
Despite the challenges, the Jim McKay Maryland Million race day fields remain attractive, and fans continue to respond by showing their loyalty to and appreciation for the state's thoroughbred heritage.
Fans who attend Oct. 17 will be treated to a day at the track full of stakes races that have included sprints, turf races, and races for fillies and mares, as well as the Classic. In addition, Maryland Million organizers have kept the day lively with entertainment and equine demonstrations between races -- such as pony races, Roman riding and the Suttler Post Clydesdales -- adding to the festive flavor of the event.