Winning streak of McKay seems all but endless

Sun Staff

As you drive into Jim McKay's driveway off a narrow, winding road nearMonkton and look at the horses in fields surrounded by white-painted boardfences, 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 contractwith ABC that kicks in in February.

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

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

But McKay said he told his wife, Margaret McManus, " `Please, be honest, ifyou 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 ofhorse-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'sobvious McKay has gotten the most out of a career that has taken him aroundthe world 200 times, covering everything from the tragic 1972 Olympics inMunich to Monte Carlo for the Formula One Grand Prix.

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

"It shot the social life," he said. "If Margaret hadn't done the job shedid 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, forbusiness and for special occasions like the one they will attend tonight.

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

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

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

Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse BreedersAssociation, 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 oneof those. He founded the Maryland Million, and without him I don't think itwould have gotten off the ground.

"He's also the most prominent sports commentator in this country to havebroadcast horse racing. And one other thing: Jim really enjoys and cares abouthorse 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 thatsometimes organizations hand out awards just so they can get a free speaker attheir dinners.

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

McKay, who spent most of his career as a television sports anchorman, is astoryteller at heart. And he says even a bad review by H.L. Mencken couldn'tdivert 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. "Webroadcast two races and the next day Mencken said, `The young man was poor atthe job, and, all in all I wouldn't give a dime for an hour even if itincluded a massage.' "

McKay and television obviously improved.

He has been covering the Triple Crown since 1975. And, he expects to be thecommentator 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 havemet many interesting and nice people in horse racing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifteen years ago, McKay and his wife were flying home from the firstBreeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in California when he became bored with thebook he was reading and started thinking about horse racing and Maryland. Itwas 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 ona smaller scale?' And she said to me, `Why don't you do it?' That's how theMaryland Million came to be," McKay said. "I got home and talked to BillyBoniface [the trainer] and Chick Lang [a Pimlico official]. Margaret made ussoup and sandwiches in the kitchen.

"We talked about nine races for $900,000, and Chick said, `We've got tohave 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 wedidn't know where the first $900,000 was going to come from."

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

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-monthold granddaughter, Margaret, who is named for her grandmother.

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

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