Today's Maryland Million Day might wind up being a case of the opening act upstaging the headliner as even horsemen are calling the $150,000 Distaff - the race preceding the feature event, the $300,000 Classic - one of the most intriguing matchups in the Million's 23-year history.
The Maryland Million, a 12-race card at Laurel Park (first post, 12:15 p.m.), is restricted to horses sired by Maryland stallions. The restrictions on entries, veteran trainer Dickie Small said, can produce some lopsided races.
"Usually, there's only one or two standout horses in a field, but this might be the first one that I've seen where almost every horse has a chance," said Small, who has For Kisses, a 5-year-old mare, in the race.
Among the nine fillies and mares, there are a combined 68 wins, and included in that are 19 stakes-race victories.
The early-line favorites are Fancy Diamond (3-1) and Jet Away Jane (7-2), but there are several speed horses and "routers" - meaning, distance horses - who could find the finish line first at the in-between distance of seven furlongs.
Small's For Kisses (8-1) is one of the most experienced runners at the distance with six starts that include two wins and three third-place finishes.
Among the fast starters are La Chica Rica, trained by Bowie-based Crystal Pickett and being ridden by Travis Dunkelberger, who is 2-for-2 on the 5-year-old mare. La Chica Rica is listed at 10-1, but her past seven races have included five wins and two second-place finishes. In mid-August, La Chica Rica won a $100,000 stakes sprint at Charles Town Races and Slots in West Virginia, and last year she was an upset winner in a small field in the Whimsical on Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico Race Course.
In several of her races, La Chica Rica was a wire-to-wire winner, indicating she's among the speed horses who might set the pace today. But Pickett said the mare has several gears.
"She can be whatever she wants to be," Pickett said of the $25,000 claimer who has sent $460,000 to the bottom line in the past two years. "She can have the lead or she can come back and get it, but certainly she likes to be out in front."
Trainer Mike Trombetta has 4-year-old filly Spectacular Malibu (5-1) entered, and, like most observers, he's impressed with the talent across the field.
"It's got a little bit of everything. There's some early speed, there are some good middle runners, and it has some closers, so it's full of horses with quality," Trombetta said.
Among the strong finishers is Lexi Star, a 6-year-old mare trained by lifelong Maryland horseman Chris Grove. Lexi Star (4-1) has earned more than $575,000 and finished third in her last race, a Grade II at Monmouth Park.
"It's set up for closers, and my horse will be closing, as well as Jet Away Jane, so I think we'll be there and if we're lucky, maybe we'll be the one in front," said Grove, who has seven horses running in races today.
Also in the Distaff field are All Giving (8-1), Talkin About Love (12-1) and Loveyasister (20-1).
Along with what promises to be an interesting chase to the finish line will be the intrigue of how the betting public responds in the walk-up to the post. For instance, Pickett was surprised that her horse, La Chica Rica, was listed at odds as long as 10-1.
"She's in a real groove, she dances every dance, and she's run against most of these horses and beaten them," Pickett said.
"But it really doesn't matter," she added, "because horses can't read the tote board."
Note: The Classic, the 11th race today, features a five-horse field with Cuba (6-5) and Five Steps (7-5) listed as the early favorites. Also running are Evil Storm (6-1), Diamond David (20-1) and Blue's Baby Boy (20-1).
What: 23rd Maryland Million, 12 races restricted to offspring of Maryland stallions
Where: Laurel Park
When: Today, 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,
Other entertainment: Country artist