As a television sportscaster, the late Jim McKay traveled the globe covering everything from surfing to log rolling, curling, rodeos, barrel jumping and curling.
He also covered horse racing, which was one of his first loves.
McKay, for whom Saturday’s Maryland Million Day is named and beloved by millions as the host of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," has been named recipient of the 2017 Robert and Anne Heighe Award for Excellence in Equestrian Journalism.
The award is presented by the Hays-Heighe House, a public history site at Harford Community College and the centerpiece of Robert and Anne Heighe’s 225-acre Prospect Hill Farm (headquarters of their Thoroughbred breeding and racing operations) from 1921 to 1953, before it became the HCC campus. Members of McKay’s family will receive the award on the evening of Nov. 10 at HCC.
McKay is being honored with the Heighe Award for his years of coverage of horse racing and in particular the American “Triple Crown” series of horse races — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, according to the museum’s directors.
He’ll also be the subject of Hays-Heighe House exhibit, “The Wider World of Jim McKay: Celebrating His Life and His Work," opening Nov. 10 and running through Jan. 12.
The awards program begins with a 5 p.m. viewing of the exhibit on the broadcast journalist's life, followed by a reception and award presentation in the HCC Chesapeake Dining Rooms starting at 7:15 p.m. Tickets are $50 per person and may be ordered by visiting harford.edu/jimmckay. Sales close Nov. 3.
The award will be accepted by McKay's daughter, Mary Guba, and her son, James Fontelieu. McKay’s son, Sean McManus, a top CBS Sports executive, is trying to work out his schedule to attend.
Guba said her dad would be humbled by the award, as are she, her son and brother.
“Dad passed away in June of 2008. To think that almost 10 years later, Maryland Horse Racing and Dad's many friends still feel his impact and want that to be remembered and recognized is something that we're very honored by,” she wrote in an email Monday. “It has also made us feel very grateful that we had such a wonderful dad/grandfather, who so many people admired during his lifetime and still do today.”
J. William “Bill” Boniface, from Bonita Farm in Darlington, a trainer and “very close” friend of McKay, will share remarks. Like McKay, Boniface was instrumental in getting the Maryland Million program off the ground.
“I miss him surely, even today,” Boniface said Monday. “He was a great advocate for horse racing.”
The Jim McKay Maryland Million spotlights the offspring of stallions standing or who stood stud in Maryland in a day of stakes races at Laurel Park.
Modeled on the national Breeder’s Cup series, the inaugural Maryland Million program was held at Laurel Park in 1986. Eleven races are scheduled Saturday.
McKay’s career covering racing began in Baltimore in November 1947 with live reporting from Pimlico Race Course, the first live television broadcast in Baltimore. It was here that his love affair with racing began.
He would also cover racing in England, and from 1977 to 2000 he broadcast the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont for ABC, while also anchoring the network’s acclaimed Wide World of Sports coverage and covering both the summer and winter Olympics.
McKay and his late wife, Margaret McManus, also bred and raced horses from their Monkton Farm.
Previous recipients of the Robert and Anne Heighe Award for Excellence in Equestrian Journalism include Joe Kelly, William Boniface, Humphrey S. Finney and Pierre "Peb" Bellocq.
"The Wider World of Jim McKay" exhibit will chronicle McKay’s life from his Philadelphia childhood through his early journalism career and into his national and international work. His reporting on equestrian sports will be one of the highlights in addition to his international reporting.
Exhibit hours are Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m.; Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m.; Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and first Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Admission is free, except at the opening on Nov. 10.
Guest curator of the exhibit, Maryanna Skowronski, has been working closely with McKay’s family and friends, who are providing photos, memorabilia and stories of his personal life and of his career.
“He was just really a classy guy, a gentleman, a really almost a poet in the way he covered things. You can just hear his voice,” Skowronski, director at the Historical Society of Harford County, said. “I grew up watching him. I remember the  Munich [Olympic] games, and we always watched Wide World of Sports. He’s been one of my idols, so to be able to curate the exhibit, it’s a big responsibility but I’m so thrilled I get to do it.”
Career in journalism
James McManus, better known to the public by his broadcast name, Jim McKay, was a transplanted Philadelphian who came to Maryland at the beginning of his high school career. He attended Baltimore’s Loyola High School and Loyola College before serving in the Navy during World War II. After leaving the service he returned to Baltimore, where he began his journalism career.
His local beginnings prepared him for his move to New York, where he worked in a variety of local and nationally broadcast programs before making his move to ABC's "Wide World of Sports" as the host of that iconic program.
McKay also served as the anchor host for the international broadcasts of 12 Olympic Games. His dignified coverage of the 1972 Munich Games and the massacre of the Israeli athletes would become a focal point of every biography and article written about him throughout his life.
While McKay covered many sports, horse racing was among his favorites.
“Dad loved Maryland, horse racing and, especially, Maryland Horse Racing. Although he came to the sport later in life via ‘Wide World of Sports’ and their coverage of The Kentucky Derby in 1975, he fell in love with every aspect of it right from the start. There wasn't anyone he didn't feel he could learn from — owners, trainers, walkers, jockeys, etc. He felt that the sport offered more fascinating stories than any other sport, and he loved to tell those stories,” Guba said.
“It was always his belief that his job was to help the viewers ‘feel’ what it was like to be a part of any sporting event, but this was never more true than when he was covering The Kentucky Derby or Preakness for example,” she said.
Guba said her dad was “a kind of poet” when it came to writing about horse racing.
“Everything about it deeply touched him — the toughness, the spirit, the glamour, the traditions, the determination, the disappointments, the tragedies, the triumphs. When he wrote about the sport, it came from his heart,” she said.
Boniface said McKay was very meticulous in his work.
“A lot of people think it comes easy, but he wouldn’t mispronounce or misspell a name. Before he spoke or would go on the air, he really worked it over,” Boniface said. “He didn’t make mistakes or make bad quotes or fly off the handle. He was a true, dedicated sports reporter.”
McKay and Boniface, along with the late Chick Lang, who was general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, were the founders of the Maryland Million.
McKay was coming home from the Breeder’s Cup in California when he said to his wife that it would be great to do a day of horse racing in Maryland, Skowronski recalled.
“Her comment to him was ‘Why don’t you do it?’ And that’s how it got started,” she said.
The Maryland Million Day was renamed the Jim McKay Maryland Million Day a year after McKay’s death on the day of the Belmont Stakes in June 2008.
McKay used his name recognition to get sponsors for the first Maryland Million, Boniface said.
“He never hesitated to play golf with someone or attend something — that’s what really got us off the ground, and it’s been very successful,” Boniface said.
One of their horses was named Sean’s Ferrari. The McManuses son, Sean, had asked for a Ferrari, Skowronski said, and McKay’s wife, Margaret, pointed to the horse and said “There’s your Ferrari.”
In the second Maryland Million, held in 1987, Sean’s Ferrari won the race for two-year-olds. The breeder was Margaret McManus, and the horse, who raced in the colors of The McManus Stable, was trained by Boniface and Boniface’s wife, Joan was a part owner.
“After he won, it was the only time I saw him speechless,” Boniface said. “We were in the winners circle, he was so excited because it was the first time we had one won.”
Harford Community College is at 401 Thomas Run Road in Bel Air. For more information on the upcoming “The Wider World of Jim McKay,” visit www.harford.edu/jimmckay or call 443-412-2144.