Wide world of sports narrows to Maryland Million for Jim McKay Sportscaster catalyst for state's card

September 07, 1991|By Don Markus

To the rest of the country, Jim McKay is the man who held overnight vigil in an ABC broadcast booth during the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and the man who has traveled the wide world of sports for the past thirtysomething years.

But to Maryland, and its horse racing community, Jim McKay is the man who brought a number of previously warring factions together for an event that in its first five years has made an impact both locally and nationally. In many ways, Jim McKay is the Maryland Million.

"He has really been the driving force behind the conception and growth of the event," Pimlico Race Course president Joe De Francis said yesterday. "He was the catalyst to make it happen."

Since coming up with the idea on a flight home from the Breeders' Cup in 1984, McKay has played a number of roles in the evolution of the Maryland Million, which will be held tomorrow at Pimlico with a card of 11 races, including its first steeplechase.

McKay has been its front man, selling the idea to the sport's local power brokers and to corporate leaders. He has served as chairman and president of its executive committee, putting in time between and during his television assignments. He has even been the deliriously happy part-owner of a winning horse.

"It's grown every way we could have hoped," McKay said yesterday from his home in Monkton.

According to those involved in the event, it has grown mostly because of McKay. It was his positive attitude in a roomful of naysayers that pushed the idea off the drawing board and onto the racetrack less than two years after he first thought about staging such a program.

McKay was able to persuade the not-so-friendly rival owners of Pimlico and Laurel race courses to come together for the good of the sport in Maryland. He used his visibility and popularity as a sportscaster to bring in corporate sponsorship. He helped attract trainers and jockeys with national reputations.

"Jim McKay was a positive, neutral rallying point," said executive director Richard Wilcke, a former Washington lobbyist who has been with the event since its planning stage. "Whenever you have a new program, it has to have credibility. When I went in to see corporate executives, they would say, 'Why don't you do it this way?' When Jim came in, their attitude was, 'If he thinks it's going to work, who are we to say it's not.' "

It has worked, holding firm in the face of a steadily declining racing industry. It has worked, despite weekend competition for television air time with college and pro football. (The Maryland Million will be broadcast again on ESPN.) It has worked, because McKay has continued to labor tirelessly for the event to succeed.

Consider McKay's schedule in the final, frantic days before tomorrow's first race. After flying up to New York early Thursday morning to speak at a memorial service for former colleague Harry Reasoner, McKay was back at Pimlico that night to emcee a dinner for the Maryland Racing Writers. Yesterday morning, he was back at the track for the draw, and, after a few hours at home, he was in Baltimore to give some horse owners a tour of the new baseball stadium.

"No one would have thought the worse for him if he said he couldn't do it," said De Francis.

It gives McKay a sense of pride that other states, most notably California, have started similar events in light of the Maryland Million's success. That this year's program will attract nationally recognized jockeys such as Kentucky Derby winners Gary Stevens and Chris Antley, and horses such as 1989 Eclipse sprint champion Safely Kept, gives it legitimacy.

"It's been good for the track, it's been good for the horsemen, it's been good for everybody," said McKay, who at 69 seems to have the energy of a man half his age. "It's become an event to rank with the Preakness."

Said Maryland-based trainer King Leatherbury: "I liked the idea of the Maryland Million from the first time I heard about it. Now I can't figure out why we didn't think of it sooner. It gives us Marylanders a chance to shoot for this money. It's the greatest day in racing for Marylanders."

McKay can recall when one of Leatherbury's horses won a Maryland Million race in 1987 and he saw tears streaming down (( the face of a legendary trainer so accustomed to his horses finishing first that he normally doesn't go to the winner's circle.

"Here's one of the most successful trainers of all time, and I said to him, 'Why should a guy who has won over 5000 races cry after a little race in Maryland?' " said McKay. "And he told me, 'Because this is in Maryland.' "

That same year, a similar combination of melancholy and euphoria came over McKay and his wife, Margaret, when a horse in which they held a part ownership, Sean's Ferrari, came in first with jockey Laffit Pincay as a 17-1 shot. McKay had been in the winner's circle many times in his professional life, but never had been personally involved.

"The night before the race, Margaret had said to me, 'I hope we're not embarrassed,' " McKay said yesterday. "Coming down the stretch, he was third, then second. When he went into first, Margaret closed her eyes and told me to tell her what was happening. When he won, it was a thrill of a lifetime. I told her, 'If that horse never wins another race, he owes us nothing.' He took me at my word. He never won another race."

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