Sportscasting great Jim McKay, who will be buried today, was passionate about horses and the racing industry.
He was a man who could tell you the name of the first horse he bet on as a 14-year-old - Bay Dean - at Laurel Park and how much it paid - $151.20. And he would tell you straight out: That day at Laurel with his dad was the day he fell in love with the sport.
And without him, the Maryland Million, which many believe will be his greatest legacy to thoroughbred racing, might not exist. McKay died Saturday at 86.
"What Jim McKay did for Maryland horse racing is far and away the most anyone has done," said Cricket Goodall, Maryland Million executive director. "No one else could have gotten it done. He was able to get people in a room to talk about it. I don't know any one person who has more impact. Some horses have made an impact, but in terms of a person, I can't think of anyone else."
McKay was flying back from the inaugural Breeders' Cup races in 1984 with his wife, Margaret, when he got the idea for a similar event in Maryland that would honor the offspring of stallions standing in Maryland.
"It was such a wonderful day. I just thought, 'Why can't there be a day like this in Maryland?' " McKay later said. "I said it casually to Margaret. But, of course, nothing is casual to Margaret, and she said, 'OK, why don't you do it?' "
So he did. McKay gathered his friends, trainer Bill Boniface and Pimlico Race Course general manger Chick Lang, and came up with a plan. Then they pressed another friend, Joe Hickey, manager of Winfield Stallions, to get Winfield to finance the Maryland Million by donating stud fees.
Hickey said not only did McKay support Maryland racing, but he also "did more for racing on a national scale than anyone. Jim took the horse racing message everywhere he went."
Don Litz, president of the Maryland Stallion Station, remembered a humble man, quite unimpressed with himself and his treasure trove of awards that came from his work in horse racing, everything from Eclipse Awards for his Triple Crown coverage for ABC to the Old Hilltop Award given by the Maryland Jockey Club.
"I think his sense of himself was small," Litz said. "It was a very endearing quality from a man who has helped perpetuate breeding in Maryland. ... His idea to showcase Maryland sires had a direct effect on the industry."
McKay said in 2005 that he had no idea the Maryland Million would evolve into what it is today.
"It has been imitated all over the country and been good for racing everywhere," he said. "It's one of the greatest thrills of my life."
And it provided one of the happiest moments in his life, when Sean's Ferrari, bred by McKay and named for his son, won the Maryland Million Nursery in 1987.
McKay attended every Maryland Million Day from the inaugural in 1986 through 2007.
"He and Margaret loved going to the races," Lang said. "When one of their horses won, you'd think they'd just won the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup."
Joe DeFrancis, former owner of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel, said: "No one ever put more energy, enthusiasm and passion into the game.
"Even though he had seen and covered every major sporting event, including the Olympics, Indy 500 and British Open and had even hit a golf ball over the Great Wall of China, nothing made him happier than coming to the racetrack."
A funeral Mass for Jim McKay is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. A memorial tribute will begin 30 minutes before the service. WMAR will broadcast a news special, including funeral coverage, starting at 10:25 a.m.
Jim McKay's contributions to racing