When the Maryland Million was first run 10 years ago, no one connected with the race card, which was conceived especially for local horses, ever thought it would knock the prestigious Washington D.C. International off Laurel Park's fall schedule.
But as the Million grew, gaining broad-base support among Maryland's horsemen, the International shrank in importance, largely done in by the Breeders' Cup.
"What happened is that both events went in different directions, impacted by different support systems," said Tim Capps, who formerly drafted horses for the International as Laurel's vice president of racing and now serves as the newly appointed executive director of the Maryland Million.
"The International was dependent on outside forces. We were at the mercy of foreign horsemen, and in the early 1990s the glamour and lure of the International started to fade a little bit. There turned out to be so many international races and the Europeans also began to stay at home more. Then simulcasting came along, and all of a sudden, fans could see these kind of horses and races all the time. The uniqueness of the event wore off."
At the same time, the Million was gaining a strong local base, not only among horsemen but also among area businesses that signed up as sponsors.
The International never got a sponsor. The Million has dozens.
"The Million has become Maryland's day at the races, different than the Preakness, which is connected with the Triple Crown and is more of a national -- and even international -- event," Capps said. "And the majority of the money that is awarded [through purses] on Million day goes to Maryland horsemen."
A bonus is that the Million is also Breeders' Cup-proof. It draws horses that as a rule aren't Breeders' Cup-bound.
If the Washington D.C. International comes back, Capps believes, it will have to be run at a different time of year when it is not dependent on fitting into a fall schedule that is loaded with international grass races that serve as preps for the Breeders' Cup.
No Million 'like the first'
When outgoing Maryland Million executive director Richard Wilcke looks back on the first nine runnings of the Maryland Million, he said it's the first one in 1986 that always sticks out in his memory.
"It took two years to build up to the first running, and no one knew for sure how it would turn out," Wilcke recalled. "The whole series started out as a dream, a vision by Jim McKay [the ABC sportscaster who had moved back to his native Maryland and bought a horse farm]. But there were some big hurdles to overcome to get it off the ground."
The 11-race series is restricted to horses sired by Maryland stallions. It is funded by breeders who pay fees to nominate the stallions and their offspring to the races and by corporate sponsors.
"The first big hurdle was to get enough people to nominate their stallions. When we got 175 stallions the first year, we knew we had a chance for success," Wilcke said. "And despite the ebbs and flows of the breeding industry since then, that support has stayed steady. Secondly, when Anheuser-Busch came in and sponsored our first Maryland Million Classic, it gave us the first big corporate boost that we needed. The beer company had also just signed on as a sponsor for the 'Racing Across America' show and they put us on ESPN.
"But the thing that really put us over the top, is that from the beginning, the Million has been embraced by the public."
Wilcke, who is leaving Maryland to become a professor at the University of Louisville, said the biggest challenge is keeping the corporate community involved.
All 11 of Saturday's races have sponsors, and each race has drawn interesting, competitive fields of horseflesh.
How the fields stack up
Six of Saturday's 11 Maryland Million races figure to have standout favorites.
They are Mystic Rhythms (2-year-old fillies); Count On Numbers (2-year-old colts); Urbane (3-year-old fillies); Prenup (Sprint); Mz. Zill Bear (filly and mare turf); and Circuit Bar (steeplechase).
The Classic has real drama. Can Preakness runner-up Oliver's Twist, after one recent prep, be ready to catch front-running Ameri Valay in the 1 3/16-mile feature? If either of these horses fails to fire, Mary's Buckaroo looks like the winner.
The 3-year-old Turf race features a gender rivalry between the filly Rose Law Firm and the colt War Hostage.
Two former Maryland-bred filly champions, Smart n' Noble and Calipha, renew their rivalry in the Distaff Handicap. In May in the Pimlico Distaff, Calipha out-finished Smart n' Noble.
Stormy Blues retired
Former Selima Stakes winner Stormy Blues has been retired by her Pikesville owners, Harriet and David Finkelstein.
They have sold part interest in the filly to Ben Walden's Vinery Stud in Kentucky and plan to breed her next year to Gulch.