What Jim McKay has contributed to Maryland racing should be set in bronze so it can be recognized and preserved for perpetuity. No ulterior motive is involved. That's not his style. This is a man with a deep love for the game and a willingness to give abundantly, without compensation, of his intellect, imagination and abilities.
McKay didn't come in on a load of coal. He's a "gentleman's gentleman," besides being that rare mix of an individual whose personal qualities are commensurate with his professional qualifications, which rates as praise in both directions. Although attention and status have come to him, via ABC-TV's "Wide World of Sports," the rewards haven't altered his humble ways.
The goodness of McKay should be known and applauded. It was his idea that led to the establishment of the "Maryland Million," a promotion that upgrades the thoroughbred industry to a new level of acceptability and has caused other states, such as California, West Virginia, Ohio and New Mexico, to utilize a similar pattern.
Where did the concept originate? How did McKay decide it would be such a viable factor for Maryland? It could be a long, boring story but that's not the McKay way. "I was coming home from the first Breeders' Cup, in California, 1984, and after I got through reading a book, I put it down and said to my, wife, Margaret, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if something along the lines of the Breeders' Cup could be established in Maryland?'
"It was a casual remark but with Margaret there's no such thing as a casual remark. She thought a moment and answered, 'Why don't you do it?' Next I went to Billy Boniface, the trainer, and he liked it. Then I heard all the reasons why it was impossible and was told to delay it. But if you postpone a suggestion it usually doesn't happen."
Well, on Sunday, the Maryland Million plays Pimlico again. This will be the sixth renewal and, in this comparatively brief time, it has approached, in public acceptance, the International and Pimlico Special, two long established events. Last year, the Maryland Million drew in excess of 20,000 spectators, contributing to a 10-race handle of $2.4 million. Two weeks later, on a Sunday, with 12 races offered, the total mutuel figure came to $1.5 million, which underlines in a financial way what McKay has achieved.
Seven corporations are sponsoring races, including Budweiser, First National Bank of Maryland, Crown Central, USAir, Baltimore's Authorized Mercedes-Benz Dealer, Ryland Homes and the state of Maryland. Other businesses are involved with substantial contributions and 20 hospitality tents will constitute "infield city" -- which emphasizes the Maryland Million is not just another day at the races.
When the effort is measured against the time and dedication McKay puts forth, is there enough satisfaction to justify all this relentless work? "Yes, and the pleasure is tremendous," he answers. "The tough part for me when it started was getting sponsors. That's a side of sports where I was never involved. I'm basically shy and even feel it's almost an imposition to call up people and ask them to play golf. I just have to crank up my nerve."
McKay, never one to stand around looking to take a bow, praises the committee he's a part of, meaning Geoffrey Huguely, Katherine Voss, Bill Boniface, J.W.Y. Martin Jr., Richard Wilcke, Cricket Goodall, Joseph Kelly, David Hayden, King Leatherbury, Bob Manfuso, Michael Pons and Richards Rolapp. In the five previous runnings of the Maryland Million, 85 state stallions have sent their sons and daughters to the post.
"I think we would easily do $3 million in wagering in late September, or October, but since we want to be on network television [ESPN], it's necessary to hold it on a Sunday, rather than a Saturday, because of the crowded national sports schedule," McKay explains. "This year, for the first time, we'll have a steeplechase event on the card, which is as it should be, since that's such a significant part of Maryland racing."
All McKay wants is for Marylanders to turn out and take pride in watching "their horses run" and for it to be an enjoyable afternoon. The day makes an extraordinary financial impact on the thoroughbred business, creating an exceptional pay day for the track it wouldn't otherwise have, plus the value received by breeders, nominators, owners, trainers and others.
Jim McKay, strictly a volunteer, has made an enormous effort. All because he listened to his wife on a plane ride home when she took literally what he intended as a "casual" remark.