A future put out to pasture?

State farms gaze on the possibility of fewer race days

October 05, 2005|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

Billy K. Boniface stands to the side of the shimmering, black asphalt road that winds between his stables and breeding shed, and waves his hand, taking in the rolling green fields and weathered board fences.

Horses graze calmly in the distance. His father, William who is also known as Billy among horsemen, rides a tractor, mowing the pasture behind him.

"Imagine, 40 homes on each side of this road," he said. "It could happen."

The Boniface family has been in the horse business since the 1920s, when Boniface's great- grandfather established their first farm in Harford County.

Four generations later, the Bonifaces own 400 acres in Darlington. It is one of Maryland's leading breeding farms. They won the Preakness in 1983 with Deputed Testamony.

Now Boniface stands in the middle of Bonita Farm, with his home and those of family members in near proximity, and worries every bit as much as Barbara Keys and her daughter Sherrie Rudolph do on their 50 acres in Sparks.

"If [Magna Entertainment Corp.] does what it says it is going to do, it will just run the little guy out of business," said Rudolph, who grew up on the farm her family has owned for 55 years. "There are a lot of owners with one or two horses who fill the races when a need arises. But they don't think of them."

All around Maryland, breeders and horsemen and horsewomen ponder what will happen to them if the Maryland Racing Commission tomorrow approves the track owners' plan that would cut horse racing in Maryland nearly in half.

The Magna plan calls for a cut from 198 days of live racing to 112, for closing and eventually selling the Bowie Training Facility and for closing Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course to racing and training from mid-May to early November.

Magna has said that fewer racing days would allow the tracks to increase their purses enough to remain competitive with those in surrounding states that are beefed up with slot revenues.

"We understand the concerns of the breeders," Maryland Jockey Club chief operating officer Lou Raffetto said yesterday. "And we see this as a short-term solution in how we need to approach the business.

"This is not something we want to do, but feel we're forced to do because of the competitive nature of the neighboring states and the on-coming locomotive [of slots] in Pennsylvania. We can't wait to react. It will be too late. We need to be pro-active. With the tools we have to work with now, this is the only course of action."

Raffetto said there have been two more meetings with the Maryland horsemen's leaders, but "to this point, it has proven fruitless." He said no more meetings are planned before tomorrow's commission meeting.

Warning signs

In 1996, Tim Capps, as part of a delegation from Pimlico, told the state legislature: "Maryland racing will not be stabbed to death, but will die from a series of nicks and cuts."

Capps, currently a consultant for the Maryland Stallion Station, a breeding farm in Glyndon, said last week: "I think that's still the truth."

At the state's breeding and racing farms, he gets no arguments.

"We keep doing everything we can to survive," said Mike Pons of Country Life Farm. "Ten years ago we started lobbying for help. We went to Annapolis and told them the truth - that we needed help and the breeders and horsemen and the racetracks gave them a plan. But they keep making excuses. And it is simply politics and we are the cannon fodder in the whole argument.

"I watch Kentucky, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey - they've all had to go to their state legislatures for help. And every one of them got help. In this state, the Orioles, the Ravens, the Redskins, the University of Maryland have all gotten state subsidies to help them, while racing has gotten zippo."

This week, as Maryland's second biggest day in racing approaches, Saturday's Maryland Million Day for Maryland-sired horses, nearly everyone on the breeding farms has trouble controlling their voices. Anger flares. Volume rises, then softens. The throats of grown men contract with the emotion they feel over the injustice they perceive.

In Annapolis, state Del. J.B. Jennings sent letters to horse breeders and owners in his Baltimore-Harford counties district asking for feedback on their fears about Magna's plan. He said he will "forward them to my fellow legislators, to show real people are being impacted by the slots issue."

Since Jennings wrote the Sept. 8 letter, he has received 25 written replies and 20 phone calls.

"We're getting to the point of no return," he said. "It's beyond serious."

An American Horse Council study last July determined the horse industry is a $1.6 billion business in Maryland. Of that, $826 million comes from the racing industry. The study also says there are 69,000 thoroughbreds in the state and that there are 21,200 total jobs connected to Maryland racing.

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