Representatives of the Maryland horse industry and the state Department of Agriculture left last week on a 12-day trip to Russia. The primary goal was to secure Russian buyers for Maryland horses.
The Marylanders hope that Russians will attend the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic yearling sale Oct. 1-3 at Timonium to buy thoroughbreds for upgrading their racing and breeding operations. That could begin a relationship in which Russians buy Maryland thoroughbreds and standardbreds and even veterinary medicine and feed, and Marylanders perhaps buy Russian show horses.
"I've got more questions than answers at this point," said Mike Pons, a member of the Maryland delegation and president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But this is the beginning of possibly an interesting relationship. Who knows where it will go?"
Tim Capps, executive vice president of the breeders' association, said the seed for this exchange was planted about four years ago when Judith Robinson contacted him about starting a "mission-building process" with Russia. Robinson works for the U.S. Department of Commerce and owns horses in Sykesville.
A five-person equine delegation from Russia traveled to Maryland in May for Preakness week. The Russians visited farms, racetracks and a horse auction. They spent Preakness day in the state corporate tent in the Pimlico infield, where, Capps said, they displayed a keen knowledge of conformation and handicapping.
Russia has four racetracks, harness and thoroughbred, the largest being the recently reopened Hippodrome in Moscow, Capps said. The country's breeders raise all manner of horses but are renowned for their show horses.
Led by Hagner R. Mister, secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the delegation left Wednesday and will visit Moscow, St. Petersburg and Russian breeding farms. Maryland and St. Petersburg Oblast, the state surrounding St. Petersburg, have been linked since 1993 in the Maryland Sister States Program.
Capps, who played host to the Russians in May but did not make this trip, said he would expect the Russians, if they return for the October sale, to buy yearlings in the mid-range of $10,000 to $30,000. If they come back Dec. 2 and 3 for the mixed sale, they would likely look for broodmares and stallion prospects.
"They're not going to be the Maktoums," Capps said, referring to the Middle Eastern family that spends millions for top-grade thoroughbreds each year. "It's just part of an effort to get Maryland exposed a little more widely."
Marylanders cultivated a similar relationship with Korea that has resulted in Koreans buying several hundred Maryland horses in the past four years. Capps said similar initiatives might take place with Turkey and South American countries.
Pons, an owner of Country Life Farm near Bel Air, said he would welcome Russian buyers at Maryland auctions.
"With more than 800 yearlings catalogued in October, we're going to need all the buyers we can get," Pons said. "They could come in here and help us and help themselves. They could buy some quality horses that would make an immediate impact on their racing and breeding industries."
Others from the state's horse industry in Russia are Tom Chuckas, Gene Freeze, Carolyn and Ron Green, Dennis Potts, Dr. William Solomon and Joe Thomson.
Up year for Ocean Downs
In his first year operating the Ocean Downs harness track, Bill Rickman Jr. says betting is up about 25 percent, all attributable to more betting on simulcast races. Rickman opened the track near Ocean City seven days a week, whereas in the past it was open six.
He says he has spent about $2 million in track improvements. They garnered universal praise Wednesday when the Maryland Racing Commission held its monthly meeting at Ocean Downs.
Rickman refurbished the clubhouse, installed new lights around the racing surface, placed bright-red benches on the track apron that he bought at auction from the shuttered Garden State Park, spruced up the entrance, paved the parking lot and made numerous other improvements. Perhaps the most noticeable was clearing the plants beyond the track and opening a view of the water.
Oceans Downs is making do with purses of about $17,000 per night ($14,000 under contract with the horsemen, $3,000 from Rickman). Loss of the purse supplement cost the track about $11,250 daily during its 40-night meet, Rickman said. The meet concludes today.
More Rosecroft cuts
Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County, cut daily purses yesterday from $50,000 to $40,000. It had already reduced purses from $58,000 per day because of the loss of the state grant.
Tom Chuckas Jr., Rosecroft's chief executive, says his track's revenue-sharing agreement with the Maryland Jockey Club has resulted in a decline in revenue for Rosecroft. Rosecroft leaders want out of the agreement, which expires in 2004.