In one way or another, Cricket Goodall has been involved with Maryland Million from the very beginning. She was working on a farm when the innovative concept of a day to celebrate the state’s storied Thoroughbred breeding and racing history was conceived and began to take shape, and has continued in her current role as its executive director.
Over the years, Goodall has seen Maryland Million grow and flourish to become the second-biggest day on the state’s racing calendar behind only the Preakness Stakes (G1), and even serve as the inspiration for copycat events throughout North America.
“One of the things we’re most proud of is keeping it going for 30 years. At the beginning you’re working so hard to get it going and then in the middle years things were bad [in Maryland] and it was really an effort,” Goodall said. “But [reaching] 30 years last year was a big deal. I got nervous before the event thinking, ‘My God, is it going to be a good one again?’
“You do every year,” she added. “You go through those jitters of, ‘Is everybody going to show up’ and ‘Is the weather going to work out.’ All the stuff you can’t fix you worry about, but you’ve got to worry. Knock on wood, it’s been pretty darn successful and we’re happy that the track embraces it.”
On Saturday, Laurel Park will host the 31st edition of the Jim McKay Maryland Million, featuring 11 races, nine of them stakes, for horses by 107 stallions standing in Maryland and nominated to the Maryland Million program.
This year has brought a renewed energy and excitement to the event itself and the industry as a whole, with more foals on the ground and more racing at Laurel’s newly refurbished track, a multi-million dollar renovation that remains ongoing.
Since the inaugural running on Oct. 18, 1986, Maryland Million, Ltd. has been held at both Laurel and historic Pimlico Race Course and has paid out more than $30 million in purses and awards. Much of that money has been reinvested by horsemen who Goodall said “recognize not only the long tradition, but also a confident future.”
“It had big supporters early on. Jim McKay was sort of integral to getting it done. There’s the iconic story of him going to the Breeders’ Cup and coming back and sitting around the kitchen table with Billy Boniface and Chick Lang and saying, ‘Hey, why can’t we do this?’ It sounds small but it needed someone with Jim McKay’s stature to really get the ball rolling and get sponsors and get attention,” Goodall said.
“At that point the two tracks were owned separately so there was also the whole component of getting two different track managements on board. A huge part of it actually was getting all the stallion guys to buy into it and be willing to nominate their stallions. That was 1984 and the first event wasn’t until 1986, and there was some bumpy rode in between that time as with getting any big idea to really happen,” she added. “It was at the time a really innovative, big, outside-of-the-box idea. Now today, looking back, events are events and in context it doesn’t look like it’s that different. At the time, it was huge. The Breeders’ Cup was huge, so to model that in a state and get a million dollars – it was one of those ideas that a lot of people never though it would happen.”
With McKay’s stature and influence, he was able to help secure corporate sponsorships both in-state and from national and international names such as Budweiser, ESPN and Waterford Crystal that paid for early editions of the Maryland Million.
“The thought of sponsoring was looked upon as sort of a civic duty. You supported the state that you were from and you supported an industry that was recognized and a person that you respected in Jim McKay. That was all critical in getting a million dollars because there was no way it was coming from the industry or the tracks. It just wasn’t,” Goodall said. “Part of the appeal for the tracks was that purse money would not have to be generated by them, or the bulk of it certainly wouldn’t have to be. The horsemen agreed from the very beginning to put up handle from the day which they still do, but other than that the nominator fee, the sponsorships, really covered the nut and that was a big deal. It has increasingly gotten harder and harder to do over the years.
Since Maryland Million was born, 21 states from New York to California, along with Canadian tracks in Alberta and British Columbia, have gone on to hold special racing days patterned after Maryland’s model.
“It gave a chance for all of those tracks and all of those states and all of those breeding industries to get some attention, because the breeding industries in states don’t often get attention. They have restricted races and this and that but you don’t have a day that focuses on who produces the horses and how well those horses do,” Goodall said.
Attendance has reached five figures and handle surpassed $2 million in each of the Maryland Million’s first 30 years, topped by the 26,788 and $7,814,959 in 2007. Last year’s attendance was 19,119 with a handle of $4,403,182.
“It’s very nice and I personally think that’s why Maryland Million day has really grown and been able to stay with the stature that it has. It’s got a regional feel, there’s no doubt about it,” Goodall said. “It’s a Maryland day. It’s Maryland, and people are going to come out because of that. Marylanders look to run that day because they may never run on Preakness Day. I think the fans, too, a lot of fans don’t really come to the track on other days and they come on Maryland Million Day.”
In addition to the outstanding racing, which has featured such stars as 26-time stakes winner Ben’s Cat, set to seek his fourth Maryland Million victory in the six-furlong Sprint, and Eighttofasttocatch, who won the Classic three times in four years from 2011-14, there on-track demonstrations between races, as well as events and entertainment for the entire family throughout the day.
“I think we found long ago that in order to get new fans and the fans that don’t come every day, we needed the on-track stuff which was something we thought was important. We tried different things,” Goodall said. “For as long as I can remember we’ve always had different on-track between race events. We did have concerts a couple years and tried different things to fill up the house. We have found the on-track stuff gives people that don’t come to the races very often something to look at and something they don’t see very often.”
Despite its sustained success, organizers continue to look for ways to keep Maryland Million relevant in an ever-changing industry and economic climate.
“I think Maryland Million is an established event so you don’t take that lightly. You don’t get complacent. You still want to make it a day where you fill up the track with fans. I don’t know that the event itself has a lot of potential for doubling the attendance or even doubling the handle,” Goodall said. “There’s been talk for many years and we’ve been hopeful to increase the purses because a lot of other big days that were not even around when Maryland Million started have higher purses. But, you have to make sure that the purses are commensurate with the horses. You have to be careful because there’s a point of diminishing returns. You can put up big numbers and you may get the same group of horses.
“The bigger point is that the breeding industry here is successful. Behind the scenes Maryland Million is successful so you do increase the purses enough to make it more enticing for people to breed to Maryland stallions, then that’s the long-term goal,” she added. “There’s more to it than just an event. Of course, I want a great event day. But, I also want it to be a feeder for the breeding industry and for stallion [owners] that go home [after having] a winner that day and on his answering machine has three new people that want to breed to that stallion. That doesn’t get in the newspapers. You don’t hear it. I hear it because people tell me but that is a huge benefit of the day.”
As part of the ongoing renovations at Laurel, fans will be welcomed by a redesigned second floor that includes a new bar, box suites and lounge overlooking the track, as well as a refurbished Ruffian Room.
“When Maryland Million started in the 80s, weekends were a big deal at the racetrack. You still got 10,000 or 12,000 people on a good stakes day. Getting more than that for an event was doable. Now with all the technology and the competition it’s tough to make even good stake days into big attendance days,” Goodall said.
“I think all that the Stronach Group is doing with the track, trying to refurbish it and get suites and compete with stadium-type facilities, that will help getting people to the track,” she added. “People that hadn’t been to Maryland Million or hadn’t been to Laurel were thrilled and stunned when they saw the upgrades last year. This year is going to be another wow factor. It just gets people to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. The racing industry is working and we need to go out there.’ ”
From a Laurel Park Press Release