Kevin Boniface, lean like his father, peered onto the track through the large, open window on the second floor of Bonita Farm's training barn. A 5-year-old mare named Churchbell Chimes galloped through the clinging fog, slow to lift this cool autumn morning, preparing for her attempt at a third straight win in a Maryland Million race.
Boniface, 30, assistant trainer to his father, J. William "Bill" Boniface, lifted his eyes from the snorting mare to the rolling hills beyond the track. The view, as the rising sun turned the sky purple and orange, was as pleasing as a morning prayer.
"We bred and raised that horse's daddy, Deputed Testamony; he's 16 now," Kevin Boniface said. "And we bought her mother, Have You, as a yearling; now she's 22. So as Churchbell Chimes was learning how to race, we had her father watching her from one side of the racetrack and her mother watching her from the other side.
"Ours is one operation where one horse can go through its whole life span with the same people. We like to foal, raise, learn, race and return. This is the only place in the world where horses can do that."
Please excuse the devoted trainer for that slight exaggeration. But Boniface's exuberance for what he and his family are doing in Harford County -- breeding, raising and racing thoroughbreds -- is typical of the attitude of families throughout the state consumed by horses.
And this week the spotlight shines on them, as Maryland celebrates its thoroughbred racing and breeding industry with Saturday's Maryland Million at Laurel Park. Beginning at 12: 30 p.m., 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions will be contested over the dirt course, the turf course, even the steeplechase course.
Purses total $1 million, of which $200,000 spices the Maryland Million Classic. That race features the continuing comeback of the Boniface-trained, Charles M. Oliver-owned Oliver's Twist, beset with injuries and ailments since last summer. The 4-year-old dark brown colt finished second by a half-length in last year's Preakness, and probably would have won had he not run into a roadblock of horses in the homestretch.
But the Maryland Million is more than the Classic. It's a daylong festival for the home folks: the owners, breeders and trainers as well as the anonymous workers who deliver the foals, rub the horses and shovel the manure. It is, after the Preakness, the biggest day of racing in Maryland.
"But it's not like the Preakness, where there's one big race," said Josh Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "This is like a boxing match with 10 good rounds."
Although it abounds with camaraderie -- a good horseman loves a good party -- it revolves around competition. The crowd, expected to exceed 20,000, will tally which owner, breeder and trainer wins the most races and which stallion's blood courses through the veins of the most racers led into the winner's circle.
"If we were the ACC, this would be our conference tournament," said Mike Pons, vice president of Maryland Million Ltd., which puts on the races. "You want nothing more than to win your tournament."
The brothers Pons will need a scorecard to keep their rooting interests straight, because three of their stallions at Country Life Farm near Bel Air have sired more than 20 of Saturday's entrants.
No, one is not Cigar, even though the 1995 Horse of the Year, who won 16 straight races, was born at Country Life Farm six years ago. Although Cigar is Maryland-bred, he is not Maryland-sired and therefore not eligible for the Maryland Million. His father stood in Kentucky.
But Cigar's birth in a well-worn stall not far from busy U.S. 1 has brought attention from around the world.
"I consider it a feather in the cap of the whole Maryland breeding industry," said Josh Pons, 42, whose book, "Country Life Diary," chronicles three years in the life of a breeding farm, including the year Cigar was born.
No study of the economic impact of the state's breeding industry has been done since 1983, when that impact was estimated at $500 million, according to the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. That figure surely is lower today because of fewer farms and horses.
But Maryland and the country as a whole have rebounded from the great slump in the horse market during the late 1980s and early 1990s. And today, said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, the state's landscape is enriched by about 400 commercial thoroughbred farms -- varying greatly in size -- and about 200 other farms keeping a thoroughbred or two. The acreage in Maryland devoted to horses is 200,000 to 250,000, Capps said.
"The Maryland stallions are the linchpin of the region," he said. "Maryland simply has better stallions than any state from the Carolinas through New Jersey. Maryland tends to be a magnet for breeders in those states."