Md. horsemen not feeling like Million

Local racing celebration dims with other states taking breeding business

Horse Racing

September 20, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Despite the trophy presentations and champagne toasts, the Maryland Million last year provided a sobering glimpse of the state of Maryland breeding.

Of the 11 races for offspring of Maryland stallions, only four were won by Maryland-breds. Winners of the other seven, including the Maryland Million Classic, were sired by Maryland stallions but born in other states.

"There's no excitement in Maryland," said Richard Golden, president of the prestigious Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City in Cecil County. "It's a feeling like we're being left behind."

Golden and others are concerned that trends especially evident this year will result in fewer horses being born in Maryland -- and more horses born outside the state winning Maryland Million races. That probably won't happen tomorrow, when the 17th Maryland Million takes place at Pimlico, because 91 of the 116 horses entered are Maryland-breds.

All those horses, however, were born in 2000 or earlier. In the past year or two, more horse owners have looked outside Maryland for birthing stalls and homes for their mares, local breeders say. That's because owners can make more money breeding, selling or racing horses in states that have matched or surpassed Maryland in financial incentives.

Horses are considered "bred" where they are born, not conceived. For example, the winner of last year's Classic, Sumerset -- back to defend his crown -- was sired by Allen's Prospect but born in Pennsylvania.

Golden said that his 11 stallions bred 10 percent fewer mares this year than last. This was the first year, he said, business at Northview had declined since its establishment in 1988.

"All the reasons why Northview located in Maryland have disappeared," Golden said. "Every year there's less of a reason for people to breed to our stallions. More than that, there's less reason to foal their mares here. If people stop coming to Maryland to foal their mares, these farms will turn into housing projects."

Maryland's breeding is tied to the health of the state's racing industry, which is stagnant. Racing in states such as Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and even West Virginia has become more lucrative. The reasons vary depending on the state, but center on proceeds from slot machines, modern off-track-betting centers or successful telephone-betting networks.

In those states, purses and/or breeder rewards have soared. Purses are the money paid to top-finishing horses. Breeder rewards are bonuses paid over and above purses to the owners of racehorses bred in a given state and the owners of mares and stallions that produced those racehorses.

Maryland's program of breeder rewards, instituted in 1962, was the first in the country. As would happen in the late 1980s with the Maryland Million, other states emulated Maryland's "bred-fund" program. It is funded by a percentage of the handle, or money bet on Maryland races.

Since the mid-1990s, the Maryland fund has stalled at about $4.8 million per year. Last year, meanwhile, Pennsylvania's rose to $9.5 million and New York's to nearly $12 million.

Drastic change -- and dramatic growth -- might be on the horizon for Maryland racing. But for now, a growing number of mares from Maryland are being sent out of state, and fewer mares from out of state are coming to Maryland for matings with Maryland stallions and for foaling and boarding here.

The owners of horse farms say the trend was particularly strong this year and will worsen unless Maryland's racing and breeding programs improve.

"It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out what's happening these past three or four years," said Bill Boniface, a founder of the Maryland Million and owner with his family of Bonita Farm in Darlington. "The Maryland breeding industry is going down the tubes quick."

Last week, Boniface sold one of his stallions, Valley Crossing, to a Minnesota breeder because the sire didn't receive enough mares to support himself, Boniface said. All told, he said, his five stallions bred 110 mares this year, about half as many as they bred four years ago.

Dale Capuano, one of the state's leading trainers, has not only begun breeding mares to out-of-state sires but also started buying potential racehorses bred in other states.

"Nobody goes to the sales looking for Maryland-breds," Capuano said.

He paid $25,000 for a New Jersey-bred yearling filly last year because her earning potential is so great in New Jersey, which offers daily races restricted to New Jersey-breds.

Likewise, Capuano paid $31,000 for a West Virginia-bred yearling colt that would have been worth $10,000 to $12,000 as a Maryland-bred, he said. Because of rising purses and breeder incentives in West Virginia, Capuano raced about 100 horses last year at Charles Town, a once-decrepit track in West Virginia resurrected by slots.

"Now I'm buying West Virginia-breds and breeding to West Virginia stallions," Capuano said. "I wouldn't in a zillion years have even thought about that before."

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