When people involved in the thoroughbred industry gather today at Laurel Park for the Maryland Million, most will be in an upbeat mood.
The state's breeders have endured some shaky years, but their business is healthy again. Yearling prices are up. Stud fees for the top stallions are up. Purse money in the region is up--bolstered by a state subsidy in Maryland and slot-machine revenues in Delaware and West Virginia. The decline in the annual foal crop has been arrested.
"There's more of a sense of optimism than we've seen since 1990," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association.
But the best gauge of the industry's well-being is the horses entered in the 14th running of the Million, which consists of 11 races for offspring of stallions based in the state. Maryland's breeding industry is geared toward producing affordable and durable horses rather than flashy pedigrees, and that type populates the Million races. Virtually every race on the card has drawn a respectable and competitive field.
The day's main event, the $200,000 Classic, is filled with tough campaigners who could be poster boys for the Maryland thoroughbred industry. Eight-year-old Mary's Buckaroo has won 16 of 57 career starts and is running in the Million for the fifth consecutive year. Six-year-old Warrenpeace is 7 for 55. Five-year-old Fred Bear Claw has won 10 of 39.
Perfect to a Tee has been so productive that he has yielded his owners a twentyfold return on their investment. Four Washington lawyers who call themselves the Nonsequitur Stable claimed him for $14,500 in 1995 and one of the partners, Pat Dooher, said, "We hoped he might be competitive in claiming and allowance races." Perfect to a Tee has been that--and much more. After bowing a tendon in 1997 and getting a year's rest, he returned better than ever and scored his first two stakes victories this year as a 7-year-old. His sharp current form makes him the 4-to-1 morning line favorite.
In previous years, events in the Million often have drawn a single dominant horse, usually from out of town, who wins at short odds. But none of this year's races has an overwhelming odds-on favorite, and many appear quite evenly matched. Among the best:
The Sprint has drawn a solid field of six-furlong specialists, headed by Storm Punch, who has sped to the early lead in all 11 of his career starts.
The Turf has drawn a well-balanced group of 3-year-old grass specialists, seven of them with stakes credentials. Private Slip appears to be the lone front-runner among them and may possess a tactical edge.
The Distaff Handicap has attracted Maragold Princess, who won Maryland Million races as a 2- and 3-year-old and will try to do it again at age 4. But the filly's recent form hasn't been sharp, and she may not be able to beat another New York invader, Flippy Diane.