The Maryland Million, young as it is, has found a niche on the racing calendar. Changes in the Million have been subtle, nearly unnoticeable, providing stability.
But for officials, breeders and horsemen, perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the program is not its past or present. When today's sixth Maryland Million gets under way at 1 p.m. at Pimlico Race Course, they will bring a steadfast optimism for future success -- despite bleak projections for the breeding industry.
Richard Wilcke, executive director of the Maryland Million, said: "There were a number of goals for the Maryland Million when it was first started [in 1986], and they have all been met. Despite other problems in the horse industry, I see a bright future for the Maryland Million."
Joe De Francis, Pimlico/Laurel president, said the Million "has been an unbelievable success. There are just so many exciting aspects to it."
In the 1990s, officials are depending on the factors that made the program a hit in its infancy: an ability to attract and maintain corporate sponsorship; cooperation from owners and breeders in nominating procedures, and television exposure (ESPN has covered every program and will do so again today).
Although four corporate sponsors have come and gone since the first Million card, Wilcke said he is satisfied with the steady financial support the program is receiving. "Without it, it'd be like a private college with no endowment," he said.
Sponsors will contribute about $600,000 toward today's 11-race, million program.
Nominating fees for stallions were raised recently for the 1992 program because revenues had fallen steadily since about $180,000 was collected for the inaugural program. Wilcke said ,, nomination fees totaled $72,000 this year. Stallion owners were previously required to pay one-fourth of the horse's published stud fee to become eligible for bonus awards; the revision increases the fee to a full stud fee.
"There were two reasons for it," said Wilcke. "One is that there are fewer active stallions, and the other is that stud fees have dropped as a result of a depressed market. We had to do it to keep the program viable."
For a foal to be eligible for the Million, both the foal and its sire
must be nominated. For a $250 payment by Dec. 31, yearlings are made eligible for the program.
When Windfields Farm, the longtime flagship of the Maryland breeding industry, closed its Chesapeake City operation in 1989, several top-notch sires -- along with their top-notch foals and nominating revenues -- were lost to the program. King Leatherbury, a Million director and an active breeder, owner and trainer, said Million officials have adjusted well to such industry negatives.
"We've made an effort to make people aware of the advantages to nominating their horses to the program," he said.
Of the Million's future, Leatherbury said, "I honestly think it's going to get better all the time."
Three other states have established programs similar to the Million: California, Ohio and West Virginia. Wilcke said he has spent many hours with representatives of racing jurisdictions in those states, "but none has the corporate support that we've been able to attract."
The Maryland Million was run at Laurel Race Course its first year and alternated between Laurel and Pimlico until 1989, when it became a Pimlico fixture. Lynda O'Dea, vice president and consultant to the track, said the popularity of the corporate tent village in the Pimlico infield was a major factor in the Million becoming a Pimlico fixture.
"It's unworkable at Laurel," she said. "At Pimlico, it's been an extremely enjoyable way for the sponsors and their friends and family to enjoy the day."
With a crowd of some 20,000 expected today, including fans at Laurel inter-track, sponsors will see a product that continues to draw positive reviews.
"We were very scared that the quality of racing might not warrant such big purses," said Wilcke. "I don't think that's been the case at all.
"We've brought together a disparate group of people since we started the Maryland Million and kept them together.
The Million is ready to expand to other racing days in the form of enhancements for Million nominees in selected stakes events. There could be "maybe six or so" races in 1992, Wilcke said.
"But if we'd done it like that to begin with, if you had one race a week for 11 weeks, no one would even know the Maryland Million existed," he said. "You do it on one day and it's the day that everything comes together."
What: Sixth renewal of the Maryland Million
When: Today, 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.