The Maryland Million is typically a feast of racing and good-natured competition among the state's thoroughbred owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys.
When the 16th annual Maryland Million gets under way today at Pimlico, it will be that and more - a multi-faceted banquet of gambling, rock bands, entertainment, fund-raising for victims of terrorism, heightened security, angry horsemen and the festive atmosphere of a mini Preakness.
The Maryland Million is 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions with purses totaling $1.05 million. Billed as "Maryland's day at the races" since its inception in 1986, the Maryland Million has spawned similar events in 18 states.
Always the fall highlight of Maryland racing, it is considered by many to be the highlight of Maryland racing, more sensible and manageable than the Preakness. Whereas 100,000 people jam Pimlico for the Preakness, 25,000 may turn out for the Maryland Million.
That would be a record, and it would serve as a tonic to a state industry suffering from a variety of maladies. After the General Assembly earlier this year cut off racing's $10 million grant for purses, the state's thoroughbred tracks cut purses and slashed stakes.
In-fighting among the disparate industry groups continued, and this week it reached fever pitch between management of the Maryland Jockey Club and horsemen at its three tracks and training centers. Horsemen reacted angrily to management's decision to close the Pimlico barns for the winter and reassign stalls - and in most cases cut back or eliminate stalls - for trainers at Bowie and Laurel Park.
That darkened an already gloomy mood. And that's why so much hope rides on today's Maryland Million and its myriad spirit-lifting activities.
"It's particularly important this year," said Tim Capps, executive director of Maryland Million Ltd. "The last year or so the industry has gone through a lot of disarray. There's a sense out there that the industry has sort of an inferiority complex. Events like this demonstrate that there's still has a lot of vibrancy to it."
A focus of the day is raising money for relief efforts for the victims of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. The track, horsemen and breeders hope by various means to raise as much as $250,000. That would include $100,000 donated by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Security at Pimlico will be tight. Karin De Francis, a Maryland Jockey Club senior vice president, said that it would be stricter than at the Preakness. The first security measure patrons will notice is that bags will be searched at entrances.
Once inside, fans will be treated to an outstanding afternoon of racing and entertainment. The competitive highlight is the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic.
Concerned Minister is the standout, vulnerabilities and all. A likely heavy favorite in the 1 3/16-mile race (same distance as the Preakness), the 4-year-old son of Concern has, like the industry of which he is part, suffered a variety of maladies.
"He's had major problems," said his trainer, Grover G. "Bud" Delp. "He had the potential to beat anybody. I think it's in him. He's just never had the chance to show it."
A winner of six of 11 races, Concerned Minister has undergone two operations for breathing problems as well as surgery to remove three chips from his right ankle and one chip from his left ankle.
As the favorite in last year's Classic, Concerned Minister shut down in the stretch and finished fifth. Delp said the high-strung gelding lost his air. That resulted in his first operation.
"I would say that his breathing is probably as good as it's ever been, and his ankles are as good as they've ever been," Delp said. "I'm bringing him into the race just the way I want him."
The speedy Concerned Minister will likely feel the presence of the 6-year-old P Day, whose owner, breeder and trainer Charlie Hadry said will be "breathing on his tail."
The Classic also features last year's winner, Testing. The 8-year-old son of Deputed Testamony has not won since the Classic, losing four races for New Jersey trainer Peter Fortay.
"I've had a tough year with him," Fortay said, referring especially to an injury in the stifle area of a hind leg. "But don't worry about Testing. If I ship him down there, he'll be ready to run. I'm not coming down to run third."
Donald Barr, the Laurel trainer, will saddle Get the Picture for his breeder and owner, Virginia Wright. She and her husband, Frank, who live in Hampstead, are enthusiastic supporters of Maryland racing.
Barr said that Get the Picture might not be best horse in the race, but that the Wrights wanted to participate.
"It's important for Maryland that we all step up on this particular day," the trainer said. "If this goes down hill, then what have we got left in Maryland?"
What: Maryland Million, 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions
When: Today. Gates open 10:30 a.m., first race 12:35 p.m.
Where: Pimlico Race Course
Purses: $1.05 million
Highlight: $200,000 Classic, post time 5:15 p.m.
TV: Ch. 54, 4-6 p.m.
Also: Bands, children's activities, jumping demonstration, trick-riding exhibition, giveaways.