Stallion arrivals put new life into state racing

Horse Racing

July 07, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

A FORMER CHAMPION was loaded into a van in Paris, Ky., late Monday night. He was taken on a trip over highways and byways until he reached Maryland, the other state that proudly calls itself horse country.

Under cover of darkness, which is a decent metaphor for the future health of Maryland's racing industry, Go For Gin was moved to his new home. Let's just say that a famous has-been in Kentucky is a very welcome sight in Maryland.

At exactly 9 a.m. yesterday, the van carrying the 1994 Kentucky Derby winner drove up a road that splits 400 Harford County acres of chunky, green hills in two halves, each portioned off by gleaming, white fences into sprawling, freshly mowed pastures: such a romantic setting, particularly for a 13-year-old stallion. No time for a midlife crisis now.

FOR THE RECORD - In Wednesday's Sports section, a photo on Page 2C of the horse Go For Gin and Billy Boniface should have been credited to staff photographer Leah Kuritzky. The Sun regrets the error.

The bay stallion sauntered down the ramp of the van, shook his mane and stood in the sunshine, his neck craning to see a field full of mares. Then Go For Gin celebrated his big move north by posing for pictures in front of a round, stone breeding shed - a structure that must be considered the epicenter of commerce, industry and, yes, hope.

It takes a lot of love - all kinds of love - to produce the next Kentucky Derby winner. That's mostly why Go For Gin is here - to bolster the quality and variety of stallions available to Maryland breeders.

"Kentucky's going to be sorry they let him go," Bonita Farm owner Bill Boniface said yesterday, grinning as if he had just won a Triple Crown race.

"You're going to like our grass more than that bluegrass," he told Go For Gin.

It has been a long time since Native Dancer stood as the undisputed equine king of Maryland, where he resided at Alfred Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farm. Fourteen percent of Native Dancer's foals went on to become stakes winners.

Go For Gin, whose most notable offspring is Albert The Great, has not exactly matched Native Dancer's prodigious reproductive work. He's no slouch, though. From six crops to reach the races, Go For Gin's progeny have earned more than $9.5 million. Likewise, his owner, Joseph Cornacchia, said he expects a very nice crop of 2-year-olds by way of Go For Gin to emerge next spring.

In the meantime, Go For Gin is now the only Derby winner standing outside Kentucky. That only helps bolster the dream of foaling the next super horse in Maryland.

"I have a soft spot for Maryland. We won the Pimlico Special and the Preakness [in 1996 with Louis Quatorze], and Go For Gin finished second in the Preakness," Cornacchia said about his decision to relocate the horse to Bonita Farm, which now owns 50 percent interest in Go For Gin.

What a place, this Bonita Farm. Beautiful, indeed. How developers would love to sink their teeth into this land, cut it up into 10-acre lots for million-dollar custom homes.

Instead, since this is Maryland, where 685,000 acres are devoted to horse farms and where the equine industry refuses to budge to changing economic trends or relinquish its fight against stubborn politicians, Bonita Farm not only lives on, it also serves as a reminder: There's much to lose if Maryland can't find a way to keep pace with Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware.

"This is a very special day, now that the sleeping giant has awakened in Pennsylvania," Boniface said yesterday.

It seems particularly good timing that Go For Gin arrived this week, what with Pennsylvania poised to lower taxes and send its horse racing industry into cruise control. Maryland needed a little counterpunch.

In fact, Maryland breeders dished out a nice little one-two combination. In addition to Go For Gin's arrival, today is slated to mark the official groundbreaking for a new horse breeding center in Glyndon. The Maryland Stallion Station will be located at Sagamore Farms, Native Dancer's old stomping grounds, and it will have a barn and breeding shed for 10 stallions, along with adjoining pastures for boarding mares.

Investors hope the new venture also will help reinvigorate Maryland's breeding industry, whose equine census figures demonstrate a significant drop over the past decade. In 1993, 160 stallions stood in Maryland. Last year, the number was 84. Mares bred in Maryland similarly fell over the past 10 years, from 2,210 to 1,633.

Don Litz, a Maryland bloodstock agent, came up with the idea for the Maryland Stallion Station, which gained instant credibility with the backing of Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky. Twenty years ago, Litz managed Alfred Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farms.

These days, Go For Gin's arrival and the Maryland Stallion Station are developments that horse industry insiders hope send the signal that Maryland must not give any more ground, especially since Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signed a bill Monday that will put slots in at least four Pennsylvania racetracks by next Memorial Day.

"We have a lot of tasks ahead of us," Boniface said yesterday, adding: "I wish we had the slots bill passed already. We see how it's worked in other states. I know the governor is behind us and that [state] Sen. Mike Miller is behind us, but the speaker of the House [Michael Busch] doesn't listen. We're going to have to roll up our sleeves," Boniface said.

The people can fight for slots. The horses have more important work ahead of them.

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