Racing fans in other states associate Maryland racing with one event, the Preakness. But today, the crowd of 20,000 expected at Laurel Park will celebrate its own splendid secret: The Preakness may be biggest, but the Maryland Million is best.
In its 14th renewal as Maryland's mini-Breeders' Cup, Maryland Million combines horse racing with face painting, gambling with politicians' grinning and the majesty of the horse with the promotional giveaway of a truck.
But behind the glad-handing and smiles, a serious competition takes place. Owners of stallions, mares and racehorses, as well as trainers and jockeys, compete for money and prestige.
Maryland Million success can boost careers, and it can provide the final punch to an aging stallion's finest year. "It's what you'd like to see racing be every day." said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "It's a fair-like atmosphere. It takes you back years ago when racing was a social event.
"You see a lot of owners bringing friends to the races on Maryland Million day when they might not any other day of the year. It's not a bigger deal than the Preakness, but it's a Maryland deal."
Billed as Maryland's day at the races, Maryland Million revolves around 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions, including a 2 3/16-mile steeplechase race and the $200,000 Classic.
Purses total $1.25 million, enough to attract horses from out-of-state trainers such as Patrick Byrne, Richard Schosberg and Nick Zito. Maryland trainers often plan their horses' entire campaigns around the Maryland Million.
"The quality of the races is pretty consistent from year to year," Capps said. "But this year the Classic looks terrific. This is as good a Classic as we've probably seen."
Linda Albert, who won her first Maryland Million races last year, trains the morning-line favorite in the Classic, the 7-year-old gelding Perfect to a Tee. She also trains two other Maryland Million horses: Perfect Challenge in the Oaks (the filly won last year's Lassie at odds of 30-1) and Kings Wild (a 2-year-old gelding) in the Nursery.
"Every year, we really look forward to the Maryland Million," Albert said. "Some of my owners claim horses just to run on this day.
"But a lot of the horses were bred by their owners. That makes it even more exciting. It's like bragging rights when you win these races."
Said Mike Pons, business manager of Country Life Farm near Bel Air: "It's a great day for Maryland. It's the only day for me -- Joe the stallion owner in Maryland. So we make the most of it."
About 120 thoroughbred stallions stand in Maryland. Forty are represented by offspring in today's races. The Pons family plans on bringing 150 guests to the extravaganza.
"It's like the Michigan band," Pons said.
Many are members of horse-owning partnerships put together by the Ponses. Others are considering getting into the business.
"It's a great recruiting day." Pons said. "You get caught up in the fun of it."
Of the 100 horses entered in the 11 races, 25 were sired by stallions at Country Life Farm. Carnivalay leads the parade with 12 entrants, more than twice that of any other stallion. Carnivalay has already sired five Maryland Million winners.
"This is probably his career year," Pons said. "It's a little bit unusual for an 18-year-old stallion to have his best year. He's kind of like a fine wine. He's getting older and getting better."
Carnivalay's sons and daughters have earned nearly $2.2 million this year, third best among Maryland stallions behind Allen's Prospect and Polish Numbers. In the six-day period from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, Carnivalay's offspring won four stakes: two at the Meadowlands in New Jersey and two at Colonial Downs in Virginia.
Eight of his progeny have won stakes this year. Six of them compete today.
Carnivalay's stud fee this year was $6,000, far below the state's top fee of $20,000 for Two Punch and Polish Numbers, who stand at Northview Stallion Station in Cecil County. The Ponses haven't decided what to charge for a breeding next year to Carnivalay.
"We're sort of waiting to see if he has a big day [today]," Pons said.
That's how significant the Maryland Million is in the scheme of the state's horse industry. The Ponses know that as well as anyone. In 1990,, their now-premier sire Allen's Prospect, with runners from his first crop, swept both Maryland Million races for 2-year-olds.
Allen's Prospect had suddenly made it, and so had Country Life Farm. Said Pons: "You haven't arrived as a stallion until you've won a Maryland Million race."
Head of the sires class
Stallions with three or more offspring in Maryland Million races:
Sire, No., Current status
Carnivalay, 12, Stands at Country Life Farm
Deputed Testamony, 5, Stands at Bonita Farm
Private Terms, 5, Moved to Kentucky in 1996
Proud Truth, 5, Sold to Panama breeders in 1998
Smarten, 5, Retired in 1998
Two Punch, 5, Stands at Northview Stallion Station
Allen's Prospect, 4, Stands at Country Life Farm
Caveat, 4, Died in 1995
Citidancer, 4, Stands at Country Life Farm
Press Card, 4, Stands at Country Life Farm
Norquestor, 3, Died in January
Not For Love, 3, Stands at Northview Stallion Station
Opening Verse, 3, Shamrock Farms
Valley Crossing, 3, Stands at Bonita Farm
Waquoit, 3, Stands at Northview Stallion Station.
Md. Million Day
What: 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions
Where: Laurel Park
When: Today, first race 12: 35 p.m. Doors open 10: 30 a.m.
Featured race: $200,000 Classic, 1 3/16 miles
TV: Ch. 45, 4-6 p.m.