Million thrives in face of racing's troubles McKay's involvement keeps interest high

September 20, 1992|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

The foal crop of Maryland's thoroughbred population is decreasing, but the number of horses nominated to the Maryland Million continues to grow.

That's the good news -- and the irony -- as track officials and horsemen prepare to show off the state's horse breeding industry at the seventh renewal of the 12-race Maryland Million card at Pimlico Race Course this Saturday and during the week-long series of events leading up to it.

"It is a breath of fresh air," said Richard Wilcke, executive director of Maryland Million Ltd., the organization that operates and promotes the unique breeding program.

Wilcke works in an industry that nationwide has become accustomed to more than its share of glum news. Economic pressures have threatened the foundations of the sport. Fewer owners are buying fewer horses, fewer breeders are breeding them, tracks are replacing live races with simulcasts and farms are closing.

"But, we even survived the bomb," Wilcke quipped, referring to the 1988 dismantling of Windfields Farm, the state's premier breeding facility, which was shut down and sold off in parcels after the death of its legendary stallion, Northern Dancer.

What is the secret of the Maryland Million's success? How has it defied the odds?

High marks go, of course, to the program's highly visible and enthusiastic founder, Jim McKay.

The Maryland Million has become something of a personal crusade for the world-renowned sportscaster and Maryland horse farm owner, who has relentlessly lined up sponsors and motivated people in the business to participate.

Despite the recession, the Maryland Million kept all seven of its 1991 corporate sponsors, who contribute from $25,000 to $50,000 or more to underwrite a race bearing their name.

The number of foals produced in the state reached a five-year low in 1990, and the trend is expected to continue when the 1991 thoroughbred foal figures are released by the Jockey Club later this year.

Although Maryland Million nominations also dropped in 1990, they have rebounded to what's expected to be a record-setting level this year.

"So far, we have 854 provisional nominees [from the 1991 foal crop]," said Cricket Goodall, Wilcke's assistant. "There will be some attrition from that number by the end of the year. But I still expect the final figure to be in the 800s [which might top the previous 1989 record of 807 nominations]."

Wilcke believes the breeders supporting the Maryland Million "now assume the program is here to stay. They are the ones that have supported it all along."

Goodall said she thinks local breeders simply have chosen to nominate their horses to a regional program where they have a better chance of winning a purse or breeders' award than a national program like the Breeders' Cup.

"The Breeders' Cup is too much like pie in the sky, especially for people who race and breed locally," Goodall said.

The Maryland Million has also expanded its program, offering $95,000 in additional purses in four starter handicaps spread throughout the year at Pimlico and Laurel and $200,000 in purse premiums in four selected stakes.

"We've also included a steeplechase race and restructured payments for nominating fees," she said.

The result is that there is now a total of 5,293 horses nominated to the Maryland Million and the 12-race series drew a record 201 pre-race entries this year.

The Maryland Million is offered for the offspring of Maryland stallions, no matter where the horse is foaled.

The result, Wilcke said, is that while Maryland follows the national trend of showing declines in foal production, its piece of the pie in the Mid-Atlantic market -- which includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- is actually growing in number of state-bred foals and number of mares bred to Maryland stallions.

And the Million is embraced by the fans. In three of the past six years, it has outdrawn the Washington International, which has been around for nearly 40 years.

The card continues to draw big-name jockeys. Kent Desormeaux and Julie Krone figure to star this year. It is televised by ESPN, although it will be presented on tape delay this year and not shown until the following Monday night because of scheduling.

"We now have our own identity," Wilcke said. "People that win these races seem to be just as excited if the purse is $25,000 or $200,000. It's a different atmosphere than Pimlico on the third Saturday of May. The race then is world class, but rarely does a Maryland horse shine. Here local horse folk come that might shun the big crowds that day, and there seems to be a great camaraderie. The last thing we want to be thought of is a Junior Preakness."

Thoroughbred Week in Maryland

Events leading up to Saturday's Maryland Million:


Maryland Million Cup polo -- All-Star polo at Ladew Gardens, Monkton, 3 p.m. Open to public, $5 per car.

American Cafe Columbia Classic Grand Prix -- Grand Prix Jumping, Howard Community College, Columbia.


Maryland Racing Writers' Crab Feast -- Pimlico Clubhouse, 6:30 p.m.


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