Saturday's 35th annual Jim McKay Maryland Million is the national gold standard for state championship racing days. The 12-race program returns to Laurel Park with one of its most impressive Classic casts ever in the 1-1/8 miles feature. The Maryland Million brings together the top state-breds as well as those sired by registered Maryland Million stallions.
G3 winner HARPERS FIRST RIDE and G3-placed CORDMAKER are the most accomplished older horses. The new crop of Million-eligible 3-year-olds includes stakes winners MONDAY MORNING QB and TOP LINE GROWTH, both of whom have cashed checks at the G3 level.
This race often has been a pace players' haven with early speed historically strong over Laurel's 1-lap of the 9-furlong oval. Keep in mind, too, most often you're looking at horses who rarely run 1-1/8 miles and don't have the finishing stamina. A front-runner with talent is doubly tough in that respect. HARPERS FIRST RIDE and MONDAY MORNING QB are most likely to go to the front with PRENDIMI capable from the rail if sent by his rider. The pace should be honest, but again, don't go begging for closers in this race.
HARPERS FIRST RIDE and CORDMAKER exit a 1-3 finish in the G3 Pimlico Special across the Baltimore Beltway on Preakness week. Watching the replay, it was a very impressive win for Claudio Gonzalez's improving 4-year-old. Heavily favored Owendale dueled HARPERS FIRST RIDE for most of the 1-3/16 miles at Old Hilltop and you'd have expected the local to buckle. But he was resolute and turned away the more ballyhooed national stakes player. With no Owendale in the Maryland Million Classic, the path to victory has to be considered clearer for HARPERS FIRST RIDE. Plus, he's 6-for-7 lifetime at Laurel Park.
CORDMAKER will have to do more of the work himself to beat HARPERS FIRST RIDE. But he's at his best at Laurel and has topped 100 BRIS late pace figures 4 times in his last 9 starts. He tries, and will get a 7-pound weight break from HARPERS FIRST RIDE, who is forced to tote 126 (5-7 more than all rivals). The two were equal weights in the Pimlico Special, so it's a sizable shift.
MONDAY MORNING QB is one of the region's more brilliant 3-year-olds. Based at Parx with John Servis, he was considered for the Preakness before the connections opted for the Jimmy Murphy on turf. Part of that decision was the mile distance. MONDAY MORNING QB didn't handle the surface and didn't offer much. He should bounce back fine out of that, but he's still questionable at 9 furlongs. His Tesio bid behind Happy Saver obviously got some credibility boost when that unbeaten Todd Pletcher trainee came back to beat elders in a very soft edition of the G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. But, still, that's a solid running line against Happy Saver.
TOP LINE GROWTH was runner-up in the Iowa Derby last summer and was on the cusp of relevance in the crowded division. But he went to the sidelines for nearly 11 months and has been on the express path to the Maryland Million. He ran a hard-fought second in Monmouth's G3 Salvator Mile last out when in an all-out drive to unsuccessfully collar the winner for more than 3 furlongs. Those kind of races are difficult to come back from right away. But he's 4-4 at Laurel for a Kelly Rubley barn that seems to keep them in form a long time.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: HARPERS FIRST RIDE has speed, class, distance ability and an affinity for the track. The weight will make him work, but no reason to think he misses the exotics.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: In 5 of his last 8 starts, TAP THE MARK has topped 100 on the BRIS late pace figures. it's a significant rise in class, and difficult to see him in the exacta, but perhaps the bottom of the tris or supers if all goes well.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): $50 exacta box HARPERS FIRST RIDE and CORDMAKER ($100).