Once again this year, the Maryland racing industry didn't get its hoped-for slot machine legislation, and, once again, despite hard times, the sport pulled itself together to put on the best show possible on Maryland Million Day.
Despite stagnant race purses in the state, which is surrounded by racing states supplementing prize money, the 19th Maryland Million on Saturday afternoon stands as the third-biggest racing day in the state behind the Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan Day. A total of 127 horses sired by Maryland-based stallions will compete in 12 races worth $1.125 million at Pimlico Race Course. "Just from what I've heard [from other horsemen], it's still a big day, and everybody's excited about the Maryland Million," said trainer Gary Capuano, who has three runners entered. "Everybody is disappointed about the slots, but we're still Maryland racing and the Maryland racing industry. I've got a home and family here, and it's tough to just pick up and go. I'm going to stick it out and see what happens."
The centerpiece of the card is the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic, in which fleet multiple graded stakes winner Presidentialaffair faces Capuano's former Preakness runner Cherokee's Boy, fast New York-based runner Aggadan and five others at 13/16 miles on the dirt.
Presidentialaffair broke a track record this summer at Monmouth Park, but was beaten by 36 lengths in his most recent start, the Grade I Woodward at Belmont Park. If the Woodward didn't take too much out of him, he might live up to his 4-5 morning-line billing.
"He's coming into the race really, really good," Capuano said of Cherokee's Boy. "But if Presidentialaffair runs back to those earlier couple races, he'll be hard to beat."
Both Presidentialaffair and Cherokee's Boy like to run on the lead, but so do Aggadan and Bada Bam Bada Boom. A speed battle could set the table for an overlooked long shot like Irish Colony, a plodding gelding who has won nine races for owner-breeder Ryehill Farm and trainer Ronald Cartwright.
"I like that," Cartwright said, envisioning a duel for the lead. "I like the distance, and he's doing well. He's a little in and out, but when he's right, he's right there. He wants to be back and make one steady run."
The Classic isn't the only Million race with intrigue. The $100,000 Maryland Million Distaff Handicap matches two relentless front-running 5-year-old mares, Ribbon Cane and the nearly white roan Bronze Abe.
Ribbon Cane, trained by Capuano, has won four of five starts this year, including a devastating seven-length victory Sept. 4 in the Alma North at Timonium, but none of her wins have come at the Distaff distance of six furlongs. Bronze Abe has won four of eight starts this year, including three stakes wins at the distance.
"I think on paper it looks like a two-horse race," said Hall of Fame conditioner Grover "Bud" Delp, who trains Bronze Abe.
Delp's horse tried the Grade III $200,000 Endine Handicap at Delaware Park in her last start, finishing third after a rough start.
"She ran into a tough horse [Ebony Breeze] trained by Bill Mott, but we weren't going to beat that horse no matter what," Delp said. "But I didn't know that until after the race we couldn't beat her."
Crossing Point and Deer Run, the second- and third-place finishers in last year's $100,000 Maryland Million Sprint, return to try the race again but should face heavy pressure from My Poker Player, a gelding claimed in California in August by New York trainer Bruce Levine. Also in the race is Ameri Brilliance, who holds the world record at 4 1/2 furlongs.
Racing Notes: While slot machine legislation failed this year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) did sign legislation this summer dedicating a percentage of the in-state betting handle to Maryland Million purses. The funding led to the creation of the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint this year. "We hope to have the Maryland $2 million next year," said Joe Kelly, 86, longtime Pimlico historian and director of publicity for the event. . . .
The reopening date of Laurel Park continues to get pushed back. In a letter this week to the Maryland Racing Commission and the state's horsemen, Executive Vice President of Maryland Racing Operations Jim Gagliano announced the track would return to live racing Dec. 26 after recently aiming for Nov. 2.
Training is expected to be allowed over the dirt track beginning Dec. 5.