Five months ago, the Preakness Stakes presented Marylanders a gift for the ages. That memorable finish, with Silver Charm, Free House and Captain Bodgit a blur at the wire, was one of the greatest in the history of the Triple Crown.
Today, the Maryland thoroughbred industry presents Act II.
Beginning at 12: 30 p.m., Maryland Million Day commences at Laurel Park with the first of 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions. The races are worth a total of $1 million. Each one, from the $25,000, 2 1/8 -mile steeplechase to the $200,000, 1 3/16-mile Classic, holds the promise of thrills.
The brainchild of ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, a horse lover from Monkton, Maryland Million Day celebrates the state's breeding industry, the backbone of the state's racing industry. Its races are restricted to sons and daughters of Maryland stallions.
Since the first Maryland Million, on this day in 1986, 13 states have followed suit and created racing days modeled, at least in part, on this one.
The Maryland Million is now a full-fledged party -- not on a scale with the Preakness, but festive enough to put color back into the cheeks of dejected Orioles fans.
On tap will be bands, jugglers, face painters, caricature artists, races for Jack Russell terriers and a horse fair featuring a parade of breeds, miniature horses, jousting, a demonstration by the U.S. equestrian team and performances by famed riding and roping expert Jerry Diaz.
All that, of course, is embellishment to what should be a splendid day of racing.
Although each race carries its own story line and wagering opportunity, the highlight is the Maryland Million Classic, the richest race of the day. Last year's winner, Frugal Doc, became the oldest horse to win a Maryland Million race. He was 9.
Frugal Doc was such a long shot -- he paid $72.20 to win -- that no one wanted to ride him. At the last minute Omar Klinger, who had never ridden the horse, accepted the task. Asked later when he knew he had the mount, Klinger said: "At the eighth pole."
The old gelding's trainer, Scott Posey, hair flowing past his shoulders, strolled into the winner's circle wearing a sports coat from a second-hand store. An astute handler of horses, Posey is also a rock guitarist.
Few stories as colorful have graced Maryland racing.
With Frugal Doc now retired, one horse stands poised to craft a scene as pleasing. He's not a boy named Sue, but he is a gelding named Mary.
Mary's Buckaroo, the likely favorite in the Classic, is a fan favorite because of his dramatic late running style, his consistency and his gentle handlers. In 45 races, Mary's Buckaroo has finished worse than third only 12 times. He is 14-13-6 with earnings of $620,485, more than twice any competitor in the race.
His trainer, Mary JoAnne Hughes, bubbles over every time Mary's Buckaroo tries hard and emerges healthy from a race. Asked how much winning the Classic would mean to her, Hughes said: "Being first, second, third, even fourth, that'd be nice -- as long as he's competitive and comes back safe and sound."
Hughes, 49, is familiar to readers of The Sun as manager of Liberty Run Farm in Sykesville, home of Mary Bo Quoit (formerly "Miss Piggy"), the subject of a series about a horse's journey from birth to the racetrack.
Mary Bo Quoit and Mary's Buckaroo are half-sisters. Their mother is Mary Bo Peep. The sire of Mary's Buckaroo is Roo Art, so Hughes calls him Artie. (Roo Art's sire is Buckaroo.)
Hughes helped deliver Mary's Buckaroo.
"When he starts giving me trouble, I tell him: 'I pulled you slippery out of the shoot,' " Hughes said.
And what does he say to that?
"I got the money, Mom," Hughes said, laughing. "Oh, he's a love. He likes to eat bananas and peppermints. He's got a real personality My goal is to run in every Maryland Million until the year 2000 with this horse."
This will be Mary's Buckaroo's third Maryland Million. Two years ago, he was second in the Classic, Last year, he was fourth in the Sprint.
For the Maryland Million in the year 2000, Mary's Buckaroo would 9, the same age as Frugal Doc last year.
"The way I work, I can't do the Triple Crown," said Hughes, who trains four horses at Bowie and 15 at the farm. "I don't put that much pressure on a horse. I don't believe in running 2-year-olds. They're just not mature enough."
She doesn't believe in running any horse unless he's ready. With Mary's Buckaroo, she drew a circle around Oct. 18 back in June and began preparing the best horse she's ever trained for today's Classic.
After his usual summer break -- he doesn't like the heat, so Hughes grants him vacation -- the gelding ran second and third in six-furlong races in Pennsylvania.
That is Hughes' style: Prepare him for longer races with a series of sprints.
He didn't win, but he ran hard and came back sound. And now, on the verge of perhaps his greatest conquest, Hughes declared: "He's ready to go."
What: Maryland Million Day; 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions Total purses: $1 million
Highlight: $200,000 Classic
Where: Laurel Park
When: Today; first race post time is 12: 30 p.m.; gates open at 10: 30 a.m.; first 5,000 paid admissions receive Maryland Million T-shirt.
TV: Ch. 45, 4 to 6 p.m.
Pub Date: 10/18/97