Legacy of Jim McKay: Beloved Racing Voice and Visionaire

Jim McKay, center, at the 1980 Kentucky Derby with Gov. and Mrs. John Y. Brown and Diana, Bertram and Matthew Firestone. (Blood-Horse photo)

In the long and compelling history of television sports, few broadcasters have been as beloved as Jim McKay.

For more than five decades, he was the respected figure who poignantly detailed so many of his era’s major sports events and made them even more memorable for millions of viewers around the world.

He was an articulate voice of reason on ABC Television during the insanity and horror of the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

With the grace and class that was his trademark, he could anchor coverage of diverse events such as the Indianapolis 500 or the Winter Olympics or the British Open with equal amounts of expertise.

He spent more than 40 years as the host of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” and his words from the opening of that program – “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” – have become one of sports’ most famous and oft-repeated lines.

In his illustrious career as a broadcaster for ABC, he won 13 Emmy Awards while covering more than 100 sports in 40 different countries and earned the kind of respect reserved for only the very best practitioners of his profession.

“Jim was a regular guy who wrote and spoke like a poet. He loved sports. To him, sports defined life – full of drama, adventure, accomplishment and disappointment. The thrill of victory for some, the agony of defeat for others,” said Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company and a former President of ABC Television, following McKay’s death at the age of 86 in June of 2008. “Jim was as likable off camera as on, a true friend to all those who worked with him or watched him.”

McKay with Cot Campbell, Pat Day after 1990 Blue Grass Stakes. (Anne Eberhardt/Blood-Horse)

In particular, though, McKay was a devoted friend to horse racing. For all of the major sports and events he covered, the one that was dearest to his heart was the Preakness Stakes, the middle leg of the Triple Crown contested at Pimlico Race Course in McKay’s home state of Maryland.

Through his love for the sport, McKay and his wife, Margaret, owned and bred horses at their Monkton, Md., farm, and he was a founding father of the Maryland Million, a series that has showcased Maryland-bred horses since 1986 and now, with its 31st edition set for Oct. 22 at Laurel Park, bears McKay’s name.

“Jim was truly a great man,” said Bill Boniface, who trained McKay’s horses and worked alongside him and longtime Maryland racing executive Chick Lang in the creation of a series now called Jim McKay Maryland Million Day. “He loved golf and being at the Indy 500, but what he loved most was horse racing.”

James Kenneth McManus was born on Sept. 24, 1921 in Philadelphia and moved to Maryland at the age of 15. In 1947, he left his job as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun to work for a local television station and took the on-air name of Jim McKay to broadcast his first live event, which was the Preakness.

That assignment started a love of racing that remained in McKay’s heart for the rest of his life and grew fonder as he hosted ABC’s coverage of Triple Crown races from 1975 through 2000 and began to race and breed horses under his wife’s name or McManus Stable.

“The Preakness was absolutely his favorite event to cover,” said veteran track announcer Dave Johnson, who worked with McKay on those ABC telecast for roughly 15 years and developed a close friendship with him. “He was talking about the Preakness during our Kentucky Derby telecast.

“People truly loved Jim. He was friendly, honest, and he had an amazing passion for racing.”

That passion came to the fore in 1984 when McKay returned home to Maryland after attending the first Breeders’ Cup. He was so impressed by that exciting day of racing at Hollywood Park that he envisioned a similar day for Maryland racing.

Jim McKay on an ABC telecast. (Blood-Horse photo)

He and his wife talked first to Boniface, who trained McKay’s horses and had a family friendship with McKay that dated back to the 1940s, when Boniface’s father, Bill, worked with Jim and Margaret at the Baltimore Sun. They later brought in Lang and together they turned McKay’s vision into reality.

“I had written the conditions for the races and had nine of them for a total purse of $900,000,” Boniface said. “Chick turned to me and said, ‘Bill, all nine of those races are figments of your imagination. So why don’t you imagine one more and we can call it the Maryland Million, and that’s where the name was born.”

Through McKay’s popularity and charm, sponsors were lined up and with nearly 900 horses of racing age nominated to the event – 88 of them stakes winners - the inaugural Maryland Million took place on Oct. 18, 1986 with nine races for Maryland-breds with a combined purse of $1 million.

A crowd of slightly more 20,000 at Laurel Park made that initial Maryland Million a rousing success, and the following year produced one of the event’s most heartwarming moments.

One of the entrants in the Business Express Maryland Nursery was Sean’s Ferrari, a 2-year-old bred in Maryland by Margaret McManus and named for Jim and Margaret’s son Sean McManus, now the chairman of CBS Sports. At the time he wanted a Ferrari, the car, but wound up instead with Sean’s Ferrari, a horse that was named after him.

The horse was owned by the partnership of Boniface, McManus Stable and Jim McManus, though not THAT Jim McManus. This Jim McManus lived in Westport, Conn., where Margaret and her broadcaster husband also had a home. Jim McManus, the head of Business Express, a regional airline, met Jim McManus, the broadcaster, at the post office one day in Westport and became friends when they realized they shared the same birth name.

When Jim McManus from Connecticut visited McKay in Maryland prior to the 1987 Maryland Million, he was convinced to become a sponsor of the series’ race for 2-year-old colts. Then Boniface enticed him to up the ante.

“I said if he’s sponsoring the Nursery, then he should buy a share of Sean’s Ferrari and he would win back his sponsorship money,” Boniface said. “I didn’t think it would happen, but ... ”

But, it did.

Ridden by Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay Jr., who flew in from California to ride in the 1987 Maryland Million, Sean’s Ferrari won the Nursery to trigger a winner’s celebration that the 74-year-old Boniface still remembers quite vividly.

“We were in the winner’s circle after Sean’s Ferrari won and they put a microphone in front of Jim and it was the only time in my life I saw him speechless. He couldn’t talk,” Boniface said.

McKay never won another Maryland Million race, but that did not diminish his love for the event he created or the love he and his family had for racing. To this day, his grandson, James Fontelieu, owns horses trained by Boniface.

“Jim really loved to be around the sport,” said Boniface, who won the 1983 Preakness with Deputed Testamony, the last Maryland-bred to win the race. “He would come to the barn, sit on a bale of hay and talk to a groom or hot walker as easily as he would the president of ABC. He was that kind of a guy.”

When McKay passed away, just hours before Big Brown was thwarted in his bid for a Triple Crown sweep, the television and horse racing industries mourned the loss of one of their greatest ambassadors.

In Maryland, the Maryland Million’s feature race was renamed the Jim McKay Maryland Million Classic for its 2008 renewal and in 2009 the Maryland legislature approved a joint resolution turning the Maryland Million into the Jim McKay Maryland Million Day. In 2009, Pimlico saluted the beloved broadcaster by renaming one of the stakes on the Preakness undercard the Jim McKay Turf Sprint. They were gestures that expressed the love for McKay and the debt of gratitude that racing in the Old Line State owed him.

“To name the Maryland Million after him – which was his idea – that was wonderful,” Johnson said. “They gave him the recognition due him and to remember him that way was quite fitting. It means his legacy will always be a part of Maryland racing.”

Years later, mention of McKay’s name still brings out fond memories in the hearts of those who knew him or simply watched him bring eloquence to the biggest and smallest of sports on television. He is still remembered as man for all seasons and all sports – yet it was horse racing that gave him his greatest joy and allowed to him to fully experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Fun Facts about Jim McKay

  • McKay also owned a small share of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.
  • Boniface said McKay’s best horse was John the Bold, a homebred son of Graustark who was a 3-year-old in 1992. “We won a stakes with him (the Deputed Testamony at Pimlico), and after the race I told a reporter we’re going to win the Kentucky Derby. Then I told Jim he better get ready because he was going to broadcast the race and he was also going to have a horse in the race. Then a few days later, he was galloping and he pulled a muscle in his back and he was never the same after that. He was an unbelievable horse and we had the greatest expectations for him.”
  • McKay was the first sportscaster to win an Emmy Award and received 13 of them in his illustrious career.
  • McKay received a sports and news Emmy as well as the George Polk Memorial Award for outstanding television reporting for his coverage of the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
  • He graduated from Loyola (Maryland) College and served in the U.S. Navy.
  • ABC estimated that McKay traveled more than 4.5 million miles during his career with the network.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!