BALTIMORE, SEPT. 18 -- When the Maryland Million was run last year for the first time, the main object of attention was the very existence of the event itself.
Nobody could quite believe that ABC sportscaster Jim McKay had pulled it off -- bringing together the various factions of the state's thoroughbred industry and finding corporate sponsors for nine races for the offspring of Maryland sires.
The second running of the Million at Pimlico Saturday will have as much hoopla as last year's -- tents in the infield, parachutists, a band, an expected crowd of 20,000 -- but the focus will be on the races. The nine-race card, which starts at 12:30 p.m. and offers a total of $1 million in purse money, is filled with interesting confrontations and handicapping puzzles.
The biggest riddle of the day concerns Little Bold John, the best horse in the main event, the 1 1/4-mile Budweiser Maryland Classic. A winner of seven stakes and nearly $500,000 this year, he figured to be an overwhelming favorite until he ran in a prep race at Pimlico last Saturday -- and finished dead last. Trainer John (Jerry) Robb discovered subsequently that the colt was suffering from an infection in his ankle, but, after treating it, he thinks that Little Bold John will be able to run in the Classic. How effective he will be is anybody's guess.
If Little Bold John is not ready to fire his best shot, the Canadian-based Golden Choice has the credentials to take the winner's share of the $200,000 purse. Trainer Michael Tammaro has no doubt about his colt's readiness after watching him win his first start of 1987 at Finger Lakes last month.
"That race was a mile and one-sixteenth and he'd never won at a distance so short," Tammaro said. "His strength is stamina." The Classic's conditions are perfect for him.
The other contenders in the six-horse field are Bagetelle, runaway winner of a stakes in Pennsylvania two weeks ago, and Castelets, the second-place finisher in this event last year.
Another mystifying race is the $100,000 State of Maryland Distaff Handicap, in which Capp It Off will be the solid favorite. The 5-year-old mare was one of the fastest sprinters of her sex in the East until she hurt herself falling over a fence. Now she is trying to come back after a nine-month absence of competition with only five workouts as preparation.
"The only thing that will beat her is if she doesn't have enough foundation," owner Oliver Goldsmith said. But that is a big if. Capp It Off's main competition may come from a Canadian filly, Smart Halo, who won a Maryland Million event last year and will be getting Lasix for the first time Saturday.
One of the most interesting and talented horses on the day's program is Chapel of Dreams, who became a standout favorite for the First National Bank Maryland Ladies when Dismasted was scratched today.
Chapel of Dreams has won only one race, but it was an amazing one -- a 22-length runaway in sensational time against a maiden field at Belmont Park. Trainer John Parisella shipped her across the country for the Del Mar Oaks, but he was hardly discouraged by her narrow loss.
"She stumbled out of the gate, banged the ground and hit her nose," Parisella said. "She was a puddle of blood. Then she came seven-wide turning for home while the horse who beat her came through on the inside." Parisella concluded that the daughter of Northern Dancer "might be the best I've ever had." The 3-year-old figured to get a tough test from Dismasted, the winner of this event last year, but the mare had to be scratched because she bled in her last start at the Meadowlands and therefore was prohibited from running.
In the Business Express Maryland Nursery for 2-year-old colts, King's Snow will be an odds-on favorite, but a sentimental favorite will be Sean's Ferrari, who is co-owned by Jim McKay.
McKay's real name is McManus, and when he lived in Westport, Conn., he and another Jim McManus kept getting each other's mail. They became friends, then joint owners of a horse that McKay bred.
"The colt grew up at our farm," McKay said. "My son, Sean, has been bugging us for a Ferrari since he was 8 years old, and since he's been 8 I've been saying no. One day when we were looking at our young horses in the field my wife pointed at a colt and said to Sean, 'That's your Ferrari.' "
It would be poetic justice if the man who created the Maryland Million could win one of its races. Unfortunately, this is one Ferrari that doesn't look fast enough.