Good breeding not enough

Money: Stagnant racing purses in Maryland threaten Harford's thoroughbred industry.

March 30, 2003|By Jennifer Blenner | Jennifer Blenner,SUN STAFF

The horse industry is the fastest-growing agricultural sector in Harford County, local officials say, but stagnant racing purses threaten its continued viability in the state, some area farmers contend.

Billy Boniface, co-owner of Bonita Farms in Darlington, said business has dropped because of problems with breeders' incentives, the percentage of money in a racing purse that goes back to the farm that bred the racehorse. Those incentives and the purses that owners receive if their horses win are larger in nearby states.

Boniface, 38, is co-owner of Bonita Farms and has been a horse farmer all his life. He handles the breeding division and is responsible for raising 50 to 75 foals each year. His brothers, Kevin and John, handle the training division.

Bonita Farms encompasses 400 acres and a training facility. The farm includes 50 stalls in training barns, 50 stalls in breeding barns and a five-eighths-mile training track.

"If we don't do something soon, they [horse breeders] will go elsewhere," Boniface said. Recently, he said, he has sent foals to Pennsylvania because they have a better chance of financial success there. "There is no incentive for people to come here if the breeders' incentive is decreasing," he said.

Boniface and other horse farmers in the county recently attended a rally in Annapolis supporting slot machines at racetracks in Maryland. He thinks the slots would bring an infusion of money into the horse industry.

Legislation to authorize the slot machines is backed by the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The measure recently was approved by the state Senate but faces hurdles in the House of Delegates.

Mike Pons, 46, business manager of Country Life Farms in Bel Air, said he has lost clients to West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, where horse-breeding money is increasing.

Pons and his brother, Josh Pons, 48, run the thoroughbred breeding farm, which contains more than 100 acres, and a new 160-acre training farm, Merryland Farms, in Hydes.

Both have been around horses most of their lives and have continued the 70-year-old family business.

Country Life Farms has 75 stalls for breeding and five miles of fences around the pasture. Eight miles down the road is Merryland Farms, which has 83 stalls for training, a five-eighths-mile training track, and 12 to 13 miles of fences around the pasture.

To survive in the business, Mike Pons said, he created a niche.

"We have one of the best stallion rosters east of Kentucky," he said. "We've been doing it longer than others, and we have the expertise and experience."

The Pons brothers are commercial breeders whose primary job is to have their stallions impregnate 250 mares and return them to their owners, who sell the foals or train them for the track.

They also train horses at Merryland Farms, where yearlings begin their schooling. Every horse needs a team, including veterinarians, blacksmiths and grooms, to keep it in top shape, Pons said. Pons-bred horses race internationally.

Because thoroughbreds are a big business in the area, "it is very important that our bred money be competitive with other states," Pons said. "For instance, the breeder incentive in Maryland is $4.8 million, Pennsylvania is $10 million, and New York is $15 million, so Maryland is distant third."

For 10 years, Maryland's breeder money has remained unchanged.

The state's thoroughbred industry is suffering because there are bigger incentives for racehorses bred in states that use slot-machine revenue to help their horse industries, said John Sullivan, agriculture coordinator for Harford County. Slots are practical and have been successful in other states, he said.

"Slots are not the only answer, [but] I don't know what the alternative is," said Sullivan, who calls the horse industry the county's fastest-growing agricultural sector.

He noted that the state has subsidized baseball and football while the tracks have been going downhill.

Since its peak in the 1980s, when Deputed Testamony, a racehorse bred at Bonita Farms, won the Preakness, there has been a gradual decline in the area's thoroughbred industry, Sullivan said.

Jay Young of Monkton, president of the Elk Ridge Harford Hunt Club, said the success of the horse industry at all levels is necessary for the enjoyment of all aspects of it.

"If a major part of the industry fails, it would significantly impact all of us," he said. Young, who lives on a farm and is a lawyer at Brown, Brown & Brown in Bel Air, said he wants the horse industry to survive in Harford County because the horse farms are national treasures.

The horse industry is economically integrated. The horses used for fox hunting are retired thoroughbreds, which members purchase from horse farms in the county along with hay, straw and grain, as other farmers do, Young said.

"I want to see the industry continue to grow," he said. "It is something everyone should be able to enjoy."

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