LAUREL — The new-look Laurel Park has been getting gussied up for the past two seasons, but Jim McKay Maryland Million Day was something of a coming-out party for the renovated race course that hopes to attract a Breeders' Cup by 2021.
The nearly $30 million that has been spent to improve the facility — both for the fans in the stands and the horses that populate the state-of-the-art barn complex — is part of a long-range plan by the Stronach Group to change the face of Maryland racing.
Chief operating officer Tim Ritvo said that the Maryland Jockey Club is now positioned to bid for the 2020 and 2021 Breeders' Cups and also is planning to revive the historic DC International Stakes, which was run at Laurel from 1952 to 1994 and was the forerunner to the annual Breeders' Cup Turf.
"We're thrilled,'' Ritvo said. "It's been long overdue. Maryland racing has been neglected a little bit in the past so the last couple years corporate has really put a serious focus on renovating, revitalizing and doing some things to move this sport in the right direction."
The renovation project has been going on since early in 2015 and the improvement since last October's Maryland Million is apparent, but one thing stayed the same — the winner of the feature race.
For the second year in a row, Admirals War Chest went gate to wire to win the Maryland Million Classic, breezing home by 3½ lengths ahead of Bullheaded Boy and 12¾ ahead of Just Jack to pay $7.20 to win.
"He is a little older and a little wiser, and he really controlled everything without much from me,'' said winning jockey Taylor Hole. "You do have to rate him a little bit, but he's a big horse and I could not have asked for a better effort from him. He gets in a good rhythm and high cruising speed. Even when it looks like they are getting to him, he has such a big stride that they have trouble getting to him."
Admirals War Chest is the fifth horse to win consecutive Classics. Timely Warning (1990-1991), Algar (1997-1998), Docent (2002-2003), and Eighttofasttocatch (2011, 2013-2014) are the other back-to-back winners of the Maryland Million Day feature.
Bullheaded Boy waited for a chance to make a move down the stretch, but jockey Jevian Toledo said there was nothing to second-guess about his horse's effort.
"The '4' (Admirals War Chest) got out by himself and nobody ran with him," Toledo said. "I just sat and waited and waited to make my move and when we tried to catch the '4', my horse kicked in, but the '4' was just too far ahead. My horse ran his race."
There was some bonus drama in the final race of the day, when comeback jockey Steve Hamilton rode 30-to-1 shot Coach Matthew to a near dead-heat victory over morning-line favorite Gin Fuzz.
Hamilton returned to racing in August after a 10-year layoff and had won just one race before this weekend. He got his second victory on Friday at Laurel and his third on Friday night at Charles Town before capping an eight-race schedule on Saturday with a victory that had to withstand a jockey objection before becoming official.
"The horse was ready," Hamilton said. "We wanted to get him covered up in the first third of the race. When I asked him, he punched and he hung on. That makes it a great day."
It was also a great day for racing fans, especially after the sun came out and presented the track in a very flattering light.
"I think they've done a great job and I think it shows that Maryland racing's coming back and coming back strong,'' said Michael Goldberg of Baltimore. "I think it can [host a Breeders' Cup] and it should. I think it's one of the best turf courses in the country. I hope they do bring the Breeders' Cup here."
Twenty-year-old Shayna Tiller of Laurel also was very impressed with what they've done with the place.
"I work for a horse racing publication and I was up in Saratoga for the summer," Tiller said, "so it's really nice to come back here and see that Laurel is bustling and that they've really put all the work in to bring it back to lilfe."
Ritvo said that though Maryland had to wait its turn while the Stronach Group upgraded its racing facilities in some other states, the end result will be well worth the wait.
"We did a really good job, we believe, in Florida and we've done a good job in California growing the sport again and Maryland was the next logical place,'' he said. "With the Preakness and the history and culture in Maryland, we thought for sure this was the place to really start to put some focus. So, I've moved in and the last couple years have been great, because I've never seen a facility or a system — an ecosystem — where everyone is on the same page."
That won't only be reflected in the major events that Laurel Park hopes to host in the future, but also in another increase in the number of racing dates in 2017, according to Maryland Jockey Club president Sal Sinatra. The Maryland tracks could combine to race as many as 175 days next year.
Ritvo said that the Breeders' Cup at Laurel Park should not be a long shot.
"We're going to lobby the Breeders' Cup company to look at our facility and look at the location between Washington and Baltimore," Ritvo said. "Ten million people in a 50-mile radius, including Annapolis. We're the hub of these three cities. It's the perfect location. We have a world-class grass course that has six lanes on it, one of the widest grass courses in America. And we'll have accommodations for 100,000 people. So, we're going to say to the Breeders Cup, 'Come and look at what we have become and please give us a shot and try to bid on 2020 or '21.' We're going to take a hard run at it."