Everyone seems to believe Maryland Million Day came into existence because television sports broadcaster Jim McKay attended the first Breeders' Cup races in 1984 at Hollywood Park.
Even McKay will tell you he had the idea that evolved into today's 12-race extravaganza that honors the offspring of Maryland's stallions while he was flying home from that Breeders' Cup with his wife, Margaret.
"It was such a wonderful day. I just thought why can't there be a day like this in Maryland," he said. "I said it casually to Margaret. But, of course, nothing is casual to Margaret, and she said, 'OK, why don't you do it?' "
But though the Maryland Million is celebrating its 20th running today at Laurel Park because McKay followed through, its roots go far deeper - all the way back to 1935, when he was 14.
"I remember, when we moved to Maryland from Philadelphia," said McKay, now 84, as he stood recently in the stallion barn at Harford County's Bonita Farm, near the stall of Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin.
"I was 14 and one day my father took me to Laurel. It was my first time at a racetrack and I took my little bit of money and bet on the first race."
A puff of breeze plays with McKay's thinning, light brown hair and his blue eyes sparkle in recollection.
"The horse was Bay Dean," he said, illustrating just how important that first experience had been. "He paid $151.20."
From that moment, McKay was hooked - on horse racing and on Maryland. It was simply the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park that enabled him to bring those loves together to create the Maryland Million with friends Chick Lang, the former Pimlico general manager who gave the event its name, and breeder Bill Boniface, whose son, Billy K. is now president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
"I had no idea it would evolve into what it is today," McKay said. "It has been imitated all over the country and been good for racing everywhere. It's one of the greatest thrills of my life."
Since its 1986 premiere, Maryland Million Day has been copied by 20 other states. Outside of the Triple Crown races, the state celebration of state-sired horses is the most well-known racing program in the country.
Today, the Maryland Million purse total of $1.5 million is a national record for sire stakes events. That is a major achievement in a state in which the breeding fund is shrinking and threatened by the landscape in which the state racing industry operates.
"What has made it succeed," said McKay, who lives on his farm in Monkton, "is the total backing of the racing community. It's really amazing that it has been going on for 20 years."
A surprise to McKay, perhaps, but not to those who have worked with him.
"He was the driving force of this program," said Billy K. Boniface. "Not only did he come up with the idea, he also raised money and sponsorships. He spent countless hours in the business community and got stallion owners to support this. Without him, we wouldn't have a Maryland Million."
Asked about the state of racing in Maryland leading up to this celebration, he lamented the changes that have come since the 1920s. He has seen sports fans move away from horse racing to everything from football to auto racing and seen those who like gambling leave racing for other forms of betting.
"It simply hasn't been promoted well enough over the last 50 years," he said. "And I think what [Magna Entertainment Corp.] is trying to do [reduce the number of live racing days in Maryland] is terrible. There will be an impact on the Maryland Million, but as long as people keep bring their mares to our stallions, we'll be OK."
At least that's McKay's hope. After all, he said, "I'm still looking for another horse to pay off like Bay Dean."
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