Preakness Day might be Maryland horse racing's day in the national spotlight and certainly does the most good for the pocketbook of the state's thoroughbred industry. But Maryland Million Day, being run for the 23rd time Saturday, might do the most good for Maryland's racing pride.
The card of 12 races at Laurel Park (12:15 p.m. start) is restricted to horses sired in Maryland, and, as more than one horseman put it, unlike the Preakness, it makes players out of local breeders and trainers rather than relegating them to spectators.
"Preakness is a great day, and a lot of my clients come in for that, but we're just watching," said breeder Mike Pons, who owns Country Life Farm in Harford County and a training facility, Merryland Farm, in Baltimore County. "At the Maryland Million, we're participating, and that's a different deal."
Linda Albert, a trainer who works out of the Bowie training facility, echoed Pons' sentiments about the Maryland Million.
"For some of us, it is the most important day," Albert said after yesterday's draw for Saturday's post positions. "Preakness Day isn't a day that most of us can participate in. But we can all have a chance to have a horse in Maryland Million. There's a chance every time that a Maryland-bred walks into your barn that you have a Maryland Million horse."
Both Pons and Albert have entries running Saturday. For Pons, it's a filly.
Spectacular Malibu is in the $150,000 Distaff seven-furlong sprint, considered the most competitive race of the day with the nine starters having a combined 19 wins in stakes races. Albert has Off the Glass starting, the two-time defending champion in the $50,000 Starter Handicap, back in that same race.
But as celebratory as Maryland Million Day is for the state's horsemen, this year's card is being run against the backdrop of what many within the industry say is a life-and-death vote Nov. 4 on slot machine gambling. The state's horsemen say they need revenues from slots to bolster purses to compete with surrounding states that already have slots gambling, such as Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"I don't like the idea of slots having to save Maryland racing, but that's what's going to have to have happen," said trainer Tim Keefe, who has three horses running Saturday. "It's happened all around us."
Keefe, who was born and raised in Maryland and trains at Laurel, repeated an argument that has been the common complaint from Maryland's horse industry for several years.
"When you look at all the money that's bet out of state [on slots] in West Virginia and Delaware and Pennsylvania, if [Marylanders] want to bet on slots, all they have to do is get in the car and drive 30 miles," he said.
Interestingly, the Maryland Million has become a poignant reminder of the leading role that Maryland has had in American horse racing. When the late legendary sportscaster Jim McKay helped initiate a race day that was limited to offspring of Maryland stallions in 1986, it was a unique event. Since then, 22 states have copied Maryland's lead.
WHAT: : 23rd Maryland Million, 12 races restricted to offspring of Maryland stallions
WHERE: : Laurel Park
WHEN: : Saturday, first post 12:15 p.m. (gates open 10:45 a.m.)
FEATURED RACE: : Maryland Million Classic (11th race)
ADMISSION: : $7.50 box suites, $5 clubhouse and grandstand box seats, $3 children 12-and-under
PARKING: : $10 valet, $5 preferred, free general
OTHER ENTERTAINMENT: : Country artist Andy Griggs