by Frank Vespe
The 30th edition of the Jim McKay Maryland Million was celebrated at Laurel Park Saturday, and a good time was had by, well, most.
You’ll probably forgive, for example, King T. Leatherbury if he’s had better days. His stable’s flag-bearer, the venerable Ben’s Cat, was nipped at the wire for the third consecutive year, this time in the $100,000, six furlong Sprint on the main track.
“He certainly ran a nice race,” Leatherbury said of his nine-year-old star, who lost by a nose to Jack’s in the Deck. “He didn’t have any excuses.”
As a result, Ben’s Cat remained stalled at three Million wins, tying him with five other runners for the most. After Ben’s Cat registered three straight wins in the Turf Sprint, the Maryland Million, Ltd. board decided to spike that race altogether. That forced Ben’s Cat into races where he was less well suited — the one-mile Turf twice, and the Sprint on Saturday — and led Leatherbury to joke Wednesday at the post position draw that he expected every subsequent horse that wins a race three times to receive the same treatment.
The day after, Leatherbury said, Ben’s Cat seemed none the worse for wear.
“He seems to be fine,” the recent Hall of Fame inductee said. “He’s very bright this morning.”
Ben’s Cat will be pointed to the $200,000 Fabulous Strike at Penn National, a race he’s won three consecutive years, last year in such dominant fashion that Leatherbury this week called it “the best race of his life.”
Meanwhile, the folks keeping an eye on the business end of Maryland Million did happy.
The track reported wagering handle of nearly $3.8 million, a 37 percent jump over 2014 and a continuation of the steady drumbeat of good news on handle this year. On-track handle also rose, by 17 percent.
That’s a testament to a racecard that saw robust fields, with eight of the 11 races having at least nine entrants, and good betting opportunities, with several tepid favorites. The favorite went off at 2-1 or higher four times on the day.
“We had full fields despite losing some 20 horses to the quarantine at Parx,” said Tim Ritvo, COO of Racing at The Stronach Group, parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club.
The track also announced a crowd of 19,119, though there’s some, let’s say, uncertainty about that number. With no turnstile count — admission to the track is free, and there are no turnstiles at Laurel Park anymore — it’s probably wise to take the official attendance count with something of a grain of salt.
On the other hand, longtime observers of the Maryland racing scene said that the first floor of the renovated facility and the track apron were as crowded as they could remember in decades. The track’s three main dining options — the Terrace upstairs and Tips and Tycoons on the first floor — all were full. And a Maryland Million source reported having been told that parking attendants had parked substantially more cars than the previous year.
“This was our 30th Maryland Million. We wanted it to be a big day. It was a big day. I think it’s something to build on in the future,” said Jim Steele, president of Maryland Million, on Sunday morning. “I think people were very impressed with the improvements at Laurel. The people I saw were upbeat and having a good time.”
In addition to a full facility, the track also hosted a tented VIP area down past the eighth pole and a Marylandia area on the clubhouse turn with live music, craft beers, and food trucks. Mid-card, a modestly sized group of people was gathered at the latter, several against the fence next to the track petting an outrider’s pony.
“We are very happy with the day’s racing, events and crowd,” Ritvo said. “Our renovations and new concessions and food service were welcomed with enthusiasm by our guests. It was great to hear people so happy with the changes and improvements.”
Steele echoed that sentiment.
“It takes the horsemen, the track, the breeders, the fans – all of us have to be on the same page. For so long we were spiraling down, and now we’re starting to spiral up,” he said. “People at the track saw the improvements. There was enthusiasm. You don’t want to go to a football stadium and play before 5000 fans in an empty stadium. You want it to be full and a happening place, and that’s what it was like [Saturday].”
(Note: Some quotes in this story are from Maryland Jockey Club releases.)