by Frank Vespe

Sometime between taking my first bite of fried chicken at yesterday’s Maryland Million post position draw and acceding — submitting? — to wearing the Maryland Million Big Cap, it struck me what an unusual, interesting year this is for an event taking place for the 28th time.

The highest profile horse on the card, Ben’s Cat, doesn’t really have a race to run in, even though he’s won three previous times.  The lowest odds horse on the card, 2-5 Eighttofasttocatch in the Classic, ran up the track in this race as the favorite last year and enters off a 17-length loss in his last start.

These things don’t quite fit together.

[boxify cols_use =”2″ cols =”5″ position =”left” order =”none” box_spacing =”5″ padding =”5″ border_width =”2″ border_color =”blue” border_style =”solid” height =”85″ width =”50″ ]To hear a 45-second clip of Maryland Million president Jim Steele discussing the Maryland Million…[sc_embed_player fileurl=”″][/boxify]And then there were the people.  Eighttofasttocatch’s trainer Tim Keefe donned the Big Cap, then took off.  King Leatherbury, Ben’s Cat’s trainer, described himself as “eighty-damn years old.”  And local breeder Mike Pons joked that he hoped they’d start writing Maryland Million race for weanlings, since he has a field full of them.

It’s not often that things that are old get to feeling new again, but that’s little bit of what was in the air yesterday at Laurel.  The day before, at the Maryland Racing Commission, Maryland Horse Breeders Association executive director Cricket

The King holds court.

The King holds court.

Goodall and president Josh Pons (Mike’s brother), had spoken of the new energy and excitement building around the Maryland breeding industry in the wake of new breeding incentives recently adopted (here).

It’s too soon for either those benefits or the state’s improved purse structure to have much of an impact on the Maryland Million entry box — some of the races figure to go with smaller or less accomplished fields than you’d hope — but the sense that the state is turning a corner was palpable.

Take the Pons brothers’ Country Life Farm.  Allen’s Prospect, who stood there, once was a dominant force in Maryland breeding.  Though it’s been a decade since he was euthanized, Allen remains near the top of the Maryland Million leaderboard.  As the sire of 22 Maryland Million winners, he still ranks second, behind Not for Love’s 27 but well clear of any other pursuers.

This year?  No Maryland Million runners are by current Country Life sires.

But that’s not the end of the story.  In just the last couple of years, Country Life has added three new stallions to their roster, in Cal Nation, Friesan Fire, and Freedom Child.  In a few years, perhaps, one of them will be shooting up the ranks.

And they’re not the only ones.

At the recent Fasig-Tipton sale, for example, the top two new sires by hips sold, Street Magician and Bullsbay, both stand in Maryland.  And consignors at that sale spoke of increased interest in Maryland-breds.

Breeders notoriously vote with their feet, and in recent years, there’s been a stampede — from Maryland to other states.

Portrait of the columnist as a goofy guy wearing a giant Maryland Million cap.

Portrait of the columnist as a goofy guy wearing a giant Maryland Million cap.

But with slots no longer a promise but a reality, a 10-year deal bringing stability to the racing industry, and new incentives making Maryland-breds more lucrative than ever before, folks around the Free State are starting to feel like the future is at hand.

Days like Maryland Million, that bring the racing and breeding community together, are, in part, about the past, about reaffirming and strengthening existing bonds.  They’re also about creating bonds that endure into the future.

“Each year is a little bit different,” said Maryland Million president Jim Steele, asked for his favorite memory of the event.  “But there are all these great treasures that you keep.”

Treasures like another year of the King holding court, the absurd level of optimism embodied in the act of bringing a new stallion to market, the silliness of people wearing the Big Cap.  Like the sense that an old event can take on new meaning if we do things right.