BALTIMORE, SEPT. 8 -- There are at least two pieces of evidence that the Maryland Million -- which once looked like an implausible regional experiment -- is commanding national attention.
Three other states have instituted similar days of racing for the products of their breeding industry, and California is about to do so. "You always think of new ideas originating in California," said Pimlico President Joe De Francis, "but they're imitating Maryland."
But an even more vivid indication of the Million's widespread recognition is evident from a glance at the entries at Pimlico Sunday. Of the probable favorites in the nine stakes races, four have shipped here from New Jersey, two from New York, one from California and one from Illinois. And out-of-state jockeys, notably Julie Krone and Craig Perret, could come close to sweeping the card.
The purses for the races are so compellingly attractive for certain horses that the Million is their major objective of the year. Trainer Buddy Raines was asked when he started pointing his horse, Master Speaker, for the $200,000 Maryland Classic and he said, "Ever since he crossed the wire last year." Master Speaker won the $100,000 Turf race in 1988, won the Classic in 1989 and will be solidly favored on Sunday to capture the main event again.
The only drawback of the Million's ability to attract good horses from all parts of the country is that some of them are so superior that they may turn their races into runaways. When the Million was run for the first time in 1986, it was dominated by a parade of short-priced favorites, and that could conceivably happen again.
The shortest-priced favorite of the day, and the star performer on Sunday's card, is Safely Kept, America's champion sprinter of last season. She is capable of running against the best male speedsters and she has won 16 of 20 career starts, and she will have no difficulty demolishing the five outclassed fillies she faces in the Maryland Distaff Handicap. Her presence may well attract plungers who will make huge show bets to collect a 5 percent return on a presumed sure thing.
Valay Maid is another standout, in the Maryland Oaks. The 3-year-old filly has won five starts this year and has placed in two graded stakes. Nobody should be able to touch her in this 1 1/8-mile event.
The invader who has made the longest trip to Maryland is the 2-year-old colt Xray, a member of owner Allen Paulson's powerful stable. He placed in a pair of stakes against tough company in California last month, and he will be favored in the Maryland Nursery. His opposition in this contentious race includes two stakes winners as well as the undefeated Calledons Prospect, who has won his two starts by a combined total of 19 lengths.
Master Speaker and his stablemate, Timely Warning, will be favored to beat the tough Maryland-based gelding Silano in the Classic. Not only is Master Speaker the defending champion, but he prepped for this race with a half-length victory over Silano in a stakes here last month.
There is a weight shift Sunday in Silano's favor, but the distance favors Master Speaker. Trainer Dale Capuano had contemplated passing the race because he knows that the 1 1/4-mile route may be too far for Silano. But the size of the purse makes this a gamble worth taking.
MARYLAND MILLION LINEUP
1. $100,000 DISTAFF HANDICAP: Favorite: Safely Kept. Sponsor: Maryland Million.
2. $100,000 LASSIE: Favorite: Alfa. Sponsor: USF&G.
3. $100,000 OAKS: Favorite: Valay Maid. Sponsor: Kennard Warfield Jr. Group.
4. $100,000 NURSERY: Favorite: Xray. Sponsor: Crown Central Petroleum.
5. $150,000 LADIES: Favorite: Betty Lobelia. Sponsor: First National Bank of Maryland.
6. $50,000 HANDICAP: Favorite: Malling. Sponsor: Mercedes-Benz.
7. $100,000 SPRINT HANDICAP: Favorite: Jeweler's Choice. Sponsor: USAir.
8. $200,000 CLASSIC: Favorite: Master Speaker. Sponsor: Budweiser.
9. $100,000 TURF: Favorite: Divine Warning. Sponsor: None.