In its five-year history, the Maryland Million has been a boon to many local owners, breeders and trainers. But in the program's two biggest races, local jockeys have been left holding their whips.
So when news began filtering that such riding stars as Gary Stevens, Julie Krone and Chris Antley would be at Pimlico Race Course for tomorrow's Million program, Joe Rocco might have been thinking, "Here we go again."
Rocco is the regular rider for Baron de Vaux, the favorite in the $200,000 Budweiser Maryland Classic, richest race on an 11-race program worth $1,065,000. About a week before the race, Rocco said trainer Charley Peoples assured him that he would not be replaced.
When entries were drawn and chances assessed yesterday for the sixth Maryland Million, Rocco was paired with the Baron. They appear to have the best shot of breaking what has been an unwelcome trend for the Maryland jockey colony.
Only one local rider has won either the $200,000 Classic or the $150,000 First National Bank of Maryland Ladies. That was Donnie Miller, who rode Little Bold John to win the Classic in
1987. Out-of-town jockeys such as Laffit Pincay Jr., Craig Perret and Krone, the all-time Million leader, have made a habit of raiding Maryland for one-day windfalls.
"[Being replaced] happened to me all the time when I was riding in New Jersey," said Rocco. "One time I'd won four stakes on a row on a filly and Jerry Bailey replaced me on her. Hey, I accept it. It's part of the game."
Rocco acknowledged that although he and others might be hurt by being replaced, the presence of nationally known figures lends added credibility to the Million program.
Baron de Vaux won $618,920 last year as a 3-year-old and has been sharp in his two starts this year, winning once and finishing second once. The colt will face six rivals in the 1 1/4 -mile Classic, but Rocco is unsure what his tactics will be.
"If he's in front, I'll walk the dog," Rocco said, meaning he will attempt to slow the pace in his favor. "But I'd prefer for him to have something to chase."
Jockeys of the second and third morning-line choices, Midas and Timely Warning, also ride regularly in Maryland. Rick Wilson is on TC Midas and Mike Luzzi rides Timely Warning for his grandfather, Virgil "Buddy" Raines.
Midas, a come-from-behinder, may be at a disadvantage on a slow pace. "That's what really worries me," said trainer John Hicks.
Timely Warning won last year's Classic with Perret, although Raines had given the mount to Luzzi. "But I had days," Luzzi said, meaning he was forced to serve a suspension.
"I've won a stakes before for him," Luzzi said of Raines, 82. "This would be very nice."
The Classic field is rounded out by Frugal Doc, Bluemont Fair, Cefis and Most Valiant, a Canadian invader.
A total of 103 horses were entered yesterday, with 85 slated for the nine traditional Million races. A $15,000 amateur riders' race and a $50,000 steeplechase lead into those nine events.
NOTES: Horses carry much more weight than normal in the unique Fall Highweight Handicap today at Belmont Park. The race is being simulcast to Pimlico and the Laurel inter-track outlet as the ninth of 12 races. . . . Coin Collector is the probable favorite in the Jet Pilot Stakes today at Pimlico, but the race complexion could be greatly affected by whether Thirty Eight Carat runs. The colt is also entered in tomorrow's Maryland Nursery. . . . Honored as "Maryland's Outstanding" at yesterday's Breakfast of Champions at Pimlico: Yvonne and Jim Stoner, owners; Barclay Tagg, trainer; Allen Prospect, sire; Country Life Farm, breeders; Joseph P. Fonte, horsemen's services; Oscar "Pee Wee" Doleman, unsung hero; and Henry Mesias, Delanor "Man" Johnson and Monroe Holloway Jr., backstretch employees. . . . Venomous Critic, ridden by Marco Castaneda, won yesterday's $18,500 Pimlico feature by a diminishing nose over Big Big Affair.
What: Sixth renewal of the Maryland Million
When: Tomorrow, first post 1 p.m.
Where: Pimlico Race Course
For: Offspring of sires that stood in Maryland at time of conception. Sire and foal must have been nominated for varying fees to the Million program.
TV: ESPN from 5-6 p.m. The Maryland Ladies and Maryland Classic will be televised live, with other races to be shown on tape.