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Winning streak of McKay seems all but endless

Horse racing: In Kentucky tonight, a national horsemen's group will add to the honors heaped on the broadcaster, who, at 78, remains in the saddle.

By Sandra McKee

Sun Staff

October 30, 1999

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As you drive into Jim McKay's driveway off a narrow, winding road near Monkton and look at the horses in fields surrounded by white-painted board fences, you might wonder why he'd ever want to travel the wide world.

But over the summer, McKay, at age 78, signed a new three-year contract with ABC that kicks in in February.

"I think this is my last contract," he said, his blue eyes sparkling. "But I've said that the last three times I've signed. I don't know how much longer I'll work.

"At the end of this contract, I'll be 81. I've never been 81 before, how do I know? At 50, I thought maybe I'd stop at 65. Suddenly, I'm 78 and still enjoying it."

But McKay said he told his wife, Margaret McManus, " `Please, be honest, if you see me start to lose it on the air, even a little bit, you tell me.' "

McKay leads the way through his den. Its walls are covered with photos of horse-racing memories and corner shelving that holds his 13 Emmy awards.

Emerging into a sunny sitting room in this 171-year-old brick house, it's obvious McKay has gotten the most out of a career that has taken him around the world 200 times, covering everything from the tragic 1972 Olympics in Munich to Monte Carlo for the Formula One Grand Prix.

At the height of his career, McKay worked about 47 weekends a year for ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

"It shot the social life," he said. "If Margaret hadn't done the job she did with the kids and the money, we wouldn't be here today."

These days, he works 15 weekends a year and Margaret travels with him, for business and for special occasions like the one they will attend tonight.

At Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., McKay will be honored by the Thoroughbred Club of America for his lifetime contributions to horse racing.

"Every year we have a testimonial dinner honoring someone who has given a lot to the thoroughbred industry," said Bill Farish, president of the Thoroughbred Club. "Jim McKay is certainly very deserving."

The Thoroughbred Club started having this yearly dinner in 1932. McKay is the 68th person to be honored, joining the likes of Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Paul Mellon, Woody Stephens and, just last year, D. Wayne Lukas.

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said McKay belongs on the list.

"The people who have been honored have been private breeders and owners, racing administrators and founders of organizations and events," said Capps. "They're all people who have worked selflessly for the sport, and Jim is one of those. He founded the Maryland Million, and without him I don't think it would have gotten off the ground.

"He's also the most prominent sports commentator in this country to have broadcast horse racing. And one other thing: Jim really enjoys and cares about horse racing, and that always comes through with a little extra flair."

As for McKay, he's pleased to have been thought of.

"It's not a free-speech week," McKay said, with a chuckle, explaining that sometimes organizations hand out awards just so they can get a free speaker at their dinners.

"They've honored a Who's Who in racing and I'm looking forward to being there. I do suppose I will give a speech. Knowing me, I've never seen a group of more than eight people I didn't give a speech to."

McKay, who spent most of his career as a television sports anchorman, is a storyteller at heart. And he says even a bad review by H.L. Mencken couldn't divert him from his path.

"My first television assignment was in 1947 at Pimlico," McKay said, recalling the first television telecast of any kind in Baltimore. "We broadcast two races and the next day Mencken said, `The young man was poor at the job, and, all in all I wouldn't give a dime for an hour even if it included a massage.' "

McKay and television obviously improved.

He has been covering the Triple Crown since 1975. And, he expects to be the commentator again next season before the three races move to another network.

"I asked Howard Katz [president of ABC Sports], `What do you have for me?' and he told me not to worry, that he'll have a lot of things," said McKay. "I'll miss horse racing. I've covered 25 Kentucky Derbys. Margaret and I have met many interesting and nice people in horse racing.

"I've found people in horse racing -- owners and trainers -- can enjoy each other's successes and understand their failures better than most people in other sports because they've all been through the same joys and trials.

"A great winning percentage in horse racing is 20 percent. Can you imagine a baseball team winning one in five? It wouldn't be very good, would it? In horse racing, people tend to sympathize."

But, he said, he probably won't attend the Triple Crown races regularly after they move to NBC.

Ray Paulick, editor of The Blood Horse magazine, said McKay has already contributed much to the sport.

"Thoroughbred racing has been extremely fortunate to have been the benefactor of McKay's professionalism and support for many years -- both as a broadcaster and as an owner and breeder," Paulick wrote recently.

"His enthusiastic role as host, and in recent years commentator, for the Triple Crown and other racing telecasts on ABC has helped keep the sport in the mainstream during a time when few big-name broadcasters paid any attention to horse racing."

"His efforts toward the start-up of the Maryland Million have had ripple effects throughout the country as various racing jurisdictions created their own special day for state-breds."

Since Maryland began its fall series at Laurel Park for horses sired by Maryland stallions, 16 other states have followed suit. McKay said he takes great pride in having created it.

Fifteen years ago, McKay and his wife were flying home from the first Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in California when he became bored with the book he was reading and started thinking about horse racing and Maryland. It was then that one of his best ideas for the sport he loves came into his mind.

"I turned to Margaret and said, `Why not something like that in Maryland on a smaller scale?' And she said to me, `Why don't you do it?' That's how the Maryland Million came to be," McKay said. "I got home and talked to Billy Boniface [the trainer] and Chick Lang [a Pimlico official]. Margaret made us soup and sandwiches in the kitchen.

"We talked about nine races for $900,000, and Chick said, `We've got to have another one and call it the Maryland Million.' "

McKay laughed.

"We said, `Where are we going to get another $100,000?' And all the time we didn't know where the first $900,000 was going to come from."

The purse money materialized and his idea has become a joyful day of racing.

But when the Maryland Million was held for the 14th time two weeks ago, McKay was not among the nearly 20,000 people who attended.

He was absent for the first time because of the christening of his 3-month old granddaughter, Margaret, who is named for her grandmother.

"It was no contest," McKay said, happily indicating that after missing family events repeatedly during his 50-year career, family now takes precedence.