by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick
Call it the calm before the storm, this final weekend of September is light on graded stakes action as most of the big autumn races heading toward the Breeders' Cup world championships are scheduled over the next two weeks at Belmont Park, Keeneland and the Oak Tree Racing Association meeting as Santa Anita, which hosts the two-day championships for the second consecutive year Nov. 6-7.

This weekend television viewing reminder usually focuses on graded stakes races, but we'd like to remind readers to tune in to HRTV on Saturday, beginning at 12:15 for Laurel Park's 24th edition of the Maryland Million program, which this year has been renamed the Jim McKay Maryland Million.

The Maryland Million set the standard for state-bred programs (or, as with this event, state-sired programs). It was the brainchild of Jim McKay, a legend in sports broadcasting who just happened to love Thoroughbred racing and for many years was the host of ABC's “Wide World of Sports” coverage of the Triple Crown. 

McKay began his career like many pioneering  television news and sports personalities, working as a newspaper reporter at the Baltimore evening Sun. He was the host of the first-ever broadcast by Baltimore's first television station, showing a live horse race from Pimlico in 1947. And while his Hall of Fame broadcasting career had him “spanning the globe, to bring you the constant variety of sports…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” he never strayed far from his Maryland roots, settling into the life of a gentleman horse farmer in Monkton, Md.,  with his beloved Margaret, until his death in June 2008.

I grew up as a child of the 1960s, when there were just three television networks, no cable, no ESPN, and “Wide World of Sports” was in its heyday. McKay was my best friend and companion every Saturday afternoon, taking this Midwestern kid to places I could only imagine: a Harlem Globetrotters game in the Soviet Union,  auto racing in Monte Carlo, golf in Scotland, the lumberjack championships in Hayward, Wisc.,, Olympic Games in Mexico City, Munich and Montreal.

Many years later, when Churchill Downs hosted an annual program for college students interested in careers in sports journalism, I had the good fortune to sit on a panel with Jim  McKay and heard him talk at length about his career, his fascination with journalism and sports, and his love of Thoroughbred racing. The students were mesmerized. (Let me also say he was the toughest act to follow that you can imagine.)

But what I remember most about that spring afternoon in the Churchill Downs press box was having the chance to spend some time with McKay and getting to know the man that I'd considered one of the brightest stars in the television galaxy. He was humble to a fault, genuine, and truly fascinated by Thoroughbred racing and breeding. The sport may never have had a better ambassador than Jim McKay. Just imagine: of all the sports he covered throughout his long and distinguished career, Thoroughbred racing was his favorite.

For those younger readers who may not know much about Jim McKay and his impact on sports journalism, here are a couple of tribute videos done at the time of his death. Click here and here to view them, and enjoy the day's racing at Laurel, as Jim McKay surely would.
  • As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, Jim McKay was my introduction – and only link – to horse racing. I was glued to his broadcasts of the Triple Crown races on the Wide World of Sports. I had no idea then that I would have a career in racing one day. Thanks, Jim, wherever you are!

  • Steve

    Count me as another “midwestern kid” who grew up in the 60’s with Jim McKay as my dear companion every Saturday afternoon. Ah, the memories – he was the best.

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