Two weeks before the best horses and horsemen in the world gather for a lucrative weekend of championship racing, Laurel Park will once again play host to Maryland’s version of the Breeders’ Cup.

The Jim McKay Maryland Million will celebrate its 33rd year Saturday, featuring a full program of races for horses by 110 stallions conceived in Maryland and fully nominated and certified to the Maryland Million program.

Already the second-biggest day on Maryland’s racing calendar behind the Preakness Stakes, ‘Maryland’s Day at the Races’ will include the inaugural Clubhouse Festival, modeled after the Preakness’ InfieldFest and featuring Grammy-nominated Steve Aoki.

It was the inaugural Maryland Million Classic winner, along with the event’s founder, that helped give the fledgling Maryland Million instant credibility. McKay was a 13-time Emmy Award-winning and multiple Hall of Fame broadcaster who had the foresight and the connections to bring a Breeders’ Cup-like event to his adopted home state, where the rich tradition of Thoroughbred breeding and racing dates back to 1743.

John Franks’ Herat brought star credentials to the first Maryland Million. Franks had already won two of his four Eclipse Awards as champion owner and his trainer, Jack Van Berg, was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame the previous year. Jockey Jerry Bailey – who also won the Turf and the Distaff on the opening program – was on the rise in a career that would land him in the Hall of Fame in 1995.

 “It’s our Breeders’ Cup,” Laurel-based Hall of Fame horseman King Leatherbury said. “Jim McKay said to me on the first day we had one, I had won a race and he said, ‘You know what makes this great, don’t you King?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s Maryland’s day.’ He said, ‘You’re right.’ This is a day where the Marylanders all get to participate and get to run and get the money.”

Of the great horses to come out of the Maryland Million, Leatherbury had one of the best. He bred, owned and trained late Mid-Atlantic legend Ben’s Cat to 32 wins, 26 in stakes, and more than $2.6 million in purse earnings from 63 starts before his retirement in June 2017 at age 11.

Ben’s Cat shares the record for most starts in the Maryland Million with seven and most wins with three, taking the Turf Sprint from 2010-‘12. When the race was discontinued, he finished a close second in the 2013 and 2014 Turf and 2015 Sprint.

 “We’ve been lucky to have seen so many great horses over the years. Of course, in my mind it’s the great Ben’s Cat. He was very special to me and to the fans. He was an amazing animal,” said Leatherbury, 85. “I used to joke with them because he won a race three times and they retired the race. It wasn’t drawing as many horses so they kind of combined that with the Sprint, which is run on the dirt. We really have drawn some really nice horses over the years. It’s a great day.”

 Arguably the best horse ever to win a Maryland Million race was Safely Kept, who was trained by Alan Goldberg and raced for the New York-based Jayeff B Stable partnership of Richard Santulli, George Prussin, David Orlinsky and Jules Fink. Goldberg now trains for Santulli’s Colt’s Neck Stables.

 Safely Kept is one of six horses ever to win three Maryland Million events, taking the Distaff from 1989-‘91. She won 24 of 31 career starts, 22 in stakes, 12 of them graded including the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint and 1989 Test. A winner of nearly $2.2 million in purse earnings and the 1989 Eclipse Award as champion sprinter, she was inducted in racing’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

 “When she got into the Hall of Fame that was really special. She was certainly special to my career. She was unbelievable,” Goldberg said. “She was just a really, really talented horse who tried all the time. She tried hard. They don’t make horses like that anymore. I wish they did.”

 Safely Kept’s three Maryland Million wins came when the event was held at Pimlico Race Course. After spending time at both tracks since the Oct. 18, 1986 debut, it has called Laurel home since 2005.

“The one race where she won down there with Julie Krone where she took hold of her at the eighth pole, put on the brakes and almost got beat, that’s what I think about when I think of the Maryland Million,” Goldberg said of the 1990 Distaff. “She carried a lot of weight in those races, which they don’t really seem to do any more.

“She was just really a great horse. Most of the time when she got beat, it wasn’t because of her; it was because of me …She was just one that was so hard to beat. She was just that good. Back then you could kind of pick your races. If you were running for $100,000, that was a pretty good purse. You’d set out a little schedule and she’d seem to make all the races.”

One of the most durable Maryland Million winners was Little Bold John, whose 1987 Classic victory was one of 38 from 105 career starters. Twenty-five of his wins came in stakes, which stood as the record for Maryland-bred flat runners until Ben’s Cat broke it in the 2016 Jim McKay Turf Sprint. He was retired in 1992 with nearly $2 million in purse earnings and died from colic at age 21 in January 2003.

“What stood out about Little Bold John the most was his heart. I mean, I’ve had horses with more talent but never one with more heart,” said Laurel-based Jerry Robb, who trained Little Bold John throughout his career. “He knew what he was doing and he wanted to win. He wanted to win as much as we wanted him to win.

“He was a cool horse. Being around him, there was nothing special about him as far as his workouts or any indication that he was that kind of horse. But when it came time to run he just hated to lose. I saw him bite horses and kick horses that challenged him in a race. He just hated to lose.”

Awad was already a Grade 1 winner when he captured the 1993 Maryland Million Turf for New York-based trainer David Donk. Awad would win three more Grade 1s, retiring with 11 stakes wins, eight in graded events, among 14 career wins and $3.27 million in earnings from 70 starts.

 Cherokee’s Boy earned the first of 14 career stakes wins in the 2002 Maryland Million Nursery for Laurel-based trainer Gary Capuano. His victory in the 2003 Federico Tesio earned him a shot at the Preakness, where he finished eighth. He retired with 19 wins and $1.17 million in earnings from 48 starts, including the Grade 3 Salvator Mile in 2005.

 In addition to great horses, the Maryland Million has seen its share of Hall of Fame horsemen, among them trainers Laz Barrera, Sonny Hine, Allen Jerkens, P. G. Johnson, Leatherbury, Shug McGaughey, Woody Stephens, Van Berg and Tom Voss, as well as jockeys Bailey, Kent Desormeaux, Ramon Dominguez, Julie Krone, Eddie Maple, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., Edgar Prado, Jose Santos, Mike Smith, Gary Stevens and Jorge Velasquez.

Dominguez, who retired in June 2013, and still-active Prado share the most Maryland Million winners with 17 apiece. Dale Capuano, a winner of nearly 3,400 races, leads all trainers with 11 wins. Four of them have come in the Ladies (2000, 2001, 2013, 2015) as well as Due in the 2006 Classic.

 The success of the Maryland Million spawned copycat events throughout North America. Since its debut, 21 other states and Canada have had special racing dates modeled, at least in part, after the Maryland Million.

“It has really grown. There’s been some really good horses that have won it over the years, that’s for sure,” Dale Capuano said. “It’s such a good program. When they gave $1 million away in one day here when they started, that was unheard of. As it’s gone on, breeders were trying to breed better horses as they always try to do, and they were coming up with some better horses. Hopefully that trend will continue and we’ll be able to see some really good Maryland Million-type horses in the years to come.”

Story by Phil Janack

Editor's note: The Maryland Jockey Club's publicity staff put in long hours producing preview articles for this year's Maryland Million and This Is Horse Racing is thankful to provide an outlet for the content.