BALTIMORE — The Maryland Million not only is one of the most entertaining days on the state's racing calendar, but it frequently is the source of excellent betting opportunities. Because of the restricted eligibility conditions, races are often dominated by one or two horses who stand out over their rivals. But because the entrants may have been racing in farflung sections of the country, the superior horse will not always be obvious and will sometimes pay a generous price.
On Sunday's Million program at Pimlico, there are at least four races where one horse looks like a mortal lock. And there is another race where the obvious, short-priced favorite is anything but a cinch.
This event, which might be a trap for the favorite players, is the day's main event, the $200,000 Budweiser Maryland Classic, where Baron de Vaux will be an odds-on choice. He was one of the country's better 3-year-olds last season-he was third in the Belmont Stakes, fourth in the Travers-and he won a tuneup at Laurel last month.
But the Baron never won a race of real consequence when he was in his prime, and his recent victory at Laurel hardly proves that he is at his tops; he benefited from a perfect trip to beat a mediocre field. However, there is no question that one of his rivals, Midas, is at the top of his game. The Maryland-based gelding spent the summer at Saratoga, where he encountered insuperably bad luck in a handicap races and then blew away a good field in a minor stakes by four lengths. Take Midas to pull an upset here.
There aren't going to be too many other surprises on the card, but there are several solid-looking situations. I heartily recommend a four-horse win parlay of the following.
State of Maryland Distaff Handicap: Safely Kept is a no-brainer, of course. There are few horses in the world who can run with the champion sprinter, and there are certainly no Maryland-sired fillies who can do it. Safely Kept paid $2.40 winning this event last year, and she'll probably do the same again.
Mercedes-Benz Maryland Handicap: This 1 1/8-mile event is open to horses who have started for a claiming price of $16,000 or less in the past year, and it has traditionally produced longshot winners. But not this year. Icey Call is a cinch. Since trainer Lee Couchenour claimed the 3-year-old during the winter, he has blossomed into a solid allowance-class runner. In his last start he made an impressive four-wide move on the turn and suffered a narrow but honorable loss to Little Bold John, one of the most productive Maryland racehorses of all time.
Maryland Million Lassie: On paper, this looks like a two-horse race between Good Looking Terri and Gala Gold Digger, who finished one-two in a stakes race for Maryland-breds at Laurel last month. In fact, it's a one-horse race: Gala Gold Digger.
When Good Looking Terri defeated her rival by a neck, she benefited from the easiest possible trip. Gala Gold Digger had been hustled out of the gate and forced to battle for the lead all the way. While she was working to dispose of the other speedsters, Good Looking Terri rallied up the rail, without the proverbial straw in her path, then angled out to overhaul the leader in the final strides. She won't be so fortunate Sunday.
First National Bank of Maryland Ladies: Countus In won this race last year against a field much stronger than she will face Sunday. And she's evidently a much better mare now than she was last year, having won a Grade I stakes in California and placed in other high-class events since her last Pimlico appearance. Only one of her rivals, McKilts, can offer more than token opposition, and that filly should complete a cold exacta.
In other races, Pacific Spy appears to be the class of the Ryland Homes Maryland Steeplechase Handicap. North Carroll is a legitimate favorite in the Crown Central Petroleum Maryland Nursery. A Magic Emperor looks as good as anybody in the USAir Maryland Sprint Handicap, the toughest race on the card. Scottsville may have the edge in the wide-open Maryland Million Turf. Little Bold Looking's stretch kick should take the Maryland Million Oaks. But there's no need to take too many financial risks in these races when our four-horse parlay looks as good as money in the bank.