McKay's Legacy: On the Air, and on the Track

Broadcaster Jim McKay, who died Saturday, left a mark on thoroughbred racing with the Maryland Million.
Broadcaster Jim McKay, who died Saturday, left a mark on thoroughbred racing with the Maryland Million. (1964 Associated Press Photo)
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By Andrew Beyer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The obituaries for Jim McKay detailed achievements familiar to almost any American who watches sports on television. He won 13 Emmy Awards and countless other honors. For 37 years he was the host of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," the groundbreaking anthology series. He was the face of the network's coverage of the Olympic Games, and his defining professional moment came at Munich in 1972. When he received the information that terrorists had killed all of their Israeli hostages, McKay mournfully told the nation: "They're all gone."

McKay's contributions to horse racing barely rate a mention in the accounts of his long career. But his efforts to create the Maryland Million, an event for offspring of stallions in the state, had reverberations throughout the industry. What he did for Maryland racing reflected his love of the sport, his intelligence and his essential character.

McKay enjoyed racing for almost all of his adult life. His first appearance on the new medium called television came in 1947 on a broadcast of two races from Pimlico. He covered the Kentucky Derby for ABC for 25 years. He bred and owned thoroughbreds on a small scale, and since 1990 he had lived on a farm in Monkton, in Maryland's horse country. That is where he died on Saturday at age 86.

In 1984 McKay had attended the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup, and he loved the experience. On the way home from California, he began to muse about the idea of creating a mini-Breeders' Cup in Maryland. He talked about his idea with trainer Bill Boniface, who shared his enthusiasm but pointed out the obstacles that would stand in the way of such a new event. The industry had always been resistant to change, and its various factions -- horsemen, breeders and track owners -- were always feuding. They would need to cooperate to make possible this day of racing.

McKay didn't have the type of personality to impose his will on a fractious committee. But because he was Jim McKay, people from the industry listened to his ideas and together they forged the plan for the Maryland Million. The alliterative name was irresistible, and so they committed themselves to an event with purse money totaling $1 million, coming from nominating fees and corporate sponsorship.

How could a day of horse racing in Maryland attract significant corporate sponsors? Because of McKay. "He had the contacts to get into the boardrooms," said Joe Kelly, publicist for the Maryland Million since its inception. "The last thing he wanted was to be a salesman -- there was no brashness, no pushiness about him. But he was persuasive." If the president of a Baltimore bank or an executive at Anheuser-Busch got a phone call from Jim McKay of ABC, he was going to answer the call -- and McKay's efforts landed the necessary financial backing.

When the inaugural Million was run at Laurel in 1986, it was an instant success. Joe Hickey, president of the state's largest breeding farm, observed: "This was a tremendous long shot, and there is only one guy who could have pulled it off. Jim McKay was Moses and he led us to the Promised Land."

McKay saw his creation establish itself as the second-biggest day on the Maryland racing calendar, next to the Preakness. He enjoyed a special thrill in 1987 when Sean's Ferrari, a colt he bred and owned, won a stakes for 2-year-olds on the Million program. But his greatest reason for satisfaction came from the imitations of the Maryland Million. Virtually every state with a significant breeding industry now has a day of racing that showcases its breeding industry. The Kentucky Cup, the California Cup, and the Festival of the Sun in Florida are among the more than 20 events that owe their genesis to McKay.

The creation of the Million revealed a lot about McKay. The sportscaster's calm, low-key image on the air was his real self. He never seemed comfortable being a celebrity. And unlike most celebrities, he didn't expect special treatment or deference because of his fame. But in order to make the Maryland Million become a reality, he coaxed and prodded the industry leaders and corporate sponsors who would find it difficult to say no to the famous Jim McKay. If he was going to trade on his reputation, he'd do it not for his own benefit, but for the sake of the sport he loved.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company