With a sizable106 horses signed up to run in its 11 races, the 27th Jim McKay Maryland Million on Saturday at Laurel Park dodged a bullet considering the decline in the state's foal crop the past several years.
Racing not only suffered in Maryland in the face of competition from neighboring states that fueled their programs with funds from alternative gaming such as slots and table games. The breeding industry did, as well.
The Maryland Million, the second biggest day on the state racing calendar after the Preakness Stakes, spotlights race horses sired by stallions that stand in the state. In 2001, a total of 1,863 mares were bred to 110 Maryland-based sires. Ten years later, that number fell to 799 mares and 47 sires.
Now, as revenues earmarked for racing from Maryland casinos finds its way into race purses, Maryland Million President David DiPietro said he sees signs of life for the future.
"We hope the financial pressure has been relieved because of the improvement in purses and breeder bonuses," DiPietro said Wednesday after the fields were drawn for the 11 races. "The thing we continue to battle with, probably for another year or two, is the size of the horse population of racing age. It looks like from the data we've seen this year, the number of horses bred here actually picked up in 2012, so we probably have another year or two where we work through that softer period of time where we were breeding far fewer horses."
The only field that truly came up light for the Maryland Million is its marquee race, the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic, which drew just five runners to face defending champion Eighttofasttocatch, the 9-5 favorite on the morning line.
Owned by Arnold and Sylvia Heft and trained by Tim Keefe, the 6-year-old gelding has won only one race this year, the Harrison Johnson Memorial in March at Laurel, but Keefe freshened the horse with a vacation this summer and has pointed him toward a title defense.
"It might appear he's not the same as last year, but it seems to me, in the barn, he's doing better this year than he ever has," said Keefe, who is based at Laurel. "It's a big day for Arnold and Sylvia, and it's a big day for me and a big day for Maryland. We think he's ready."
Eighttofasttocatch is a son of long-time leading Maryland sire Not For Love, who stands at the Northview Stallion Station near Chesapeake City.
Trainer John Robb will try to beat Eighttofasttocatch with his 6-year-old In the Juice, who finished sixth, 15½ lengths behind in the Classic last year.
"You've got to be in it to win," Robb said. "I won one [Maryland Million race] last year, and, hopefully, I can win one again. It's just exciting being in it."
Far and away the most notable horse running will be Ben's Cat, the star turf sprinter bred, owned and trained by veteran King Leatherbury. The 6-year-old gelded son of Parker's Storm Cat has won 17 of 26 lifetime starts and earned more than $1.1 million.
On Saturday, Ben's Cat seeks to become just the fourth horse to win a Maryland Million race in three consecutive years.
Nine opponents will line up against him in the 5 1/2-furlong Turf Sprint, although Ben's Cat, unbeaten in four starts on the Laurel turf, will be an overwhelming favorite.
"He's the best horse but I'm not happy with that kind of weight," Leatherbury said after Ben's Cat was assigned 128 pounds for the race, 11 more than his nearest competitor.
When: Saturday. First post is 12:35 p.m. with the Classic scheduled for about 6 p.m.
Where: Laurel Park
Cost: General admission is $5. The first 4,000 will receive a Maryland Million hat.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun