State's horse farm owners have reasons for optimism with proposals for park, facility

On the Farm

August 06, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Horse owners, who have not had much to cheer about lately with the struggles of Maryland's racing industry, can take heart in a couple of government-sponsored projects aimed at corralling more equine activity and income for the state.

The latest development, which could be a boon for the racing industry as well as for farms that raise horses for recreational riding, involves the proposed construction of a $60 million animal quarantine center near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The state Department of Agriculture recently received a $42,500 federal grant to look into the feasibility of such a facility in the Mid-Atlantic area.

The quarantine center would serve as a holding pen where horses and other animals coming into or leaving the country would stay for three to five days while being checked for diseases.

The stay is required by federal regulations aimed at preventing the spread of contagious diseases.

The proposal for the quarantine center comes 10 months after the state selected a site near Annapolis where it hopes to construct a $100 million horse park -- one that would rival any other in the country.

As envisioned by state officials, the park would be a major tourist attraction, luring national and international equestrian events.

Plans call for miles of riding trails along with areas for steeplechases, rodeos and jousting tournaments. It also would feature a 5,000-seat indoor arena, a museum and a visitors center.

"Maryland has a big horse industry," Assistant Agriculture Secretary Keith Menchey said in explanation of the state's involvement in the two projects.

Just how big, nobody seems to know for certain.

A state Department of Agriculture census done in 2002 showed that there were 87,100 "equine" in the state, which is about the number of people living in Columbia. That total included horses, ponies, mules, donkeys and burros.

But that count might be off by a good margin, said Erin Petersen, an extension horse specialist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Petersen said that a more recent study by the American Horse Council puts the state's equine population at 153,000.

"But I'm not sure it's that big," she said.

While horses can be found grazing on pastures in every county of the state, nearly half of them are on farms in Central Maryland.

Baltimore County has the largest concentration of horses, with 12 percent of the population. Montgomery County, home to 10 percent of the state's horses, ranks second, followed by Frederick, Prince George's and Harford counties.

A Harford County horse farm owner, Mike Pons of Country Life Farm, just outside Bel Air, said the construction of a quarantine center "would be a huge boon to our industry."

Pons said it would be "the key to opening the big doors to markets in other parts of the world, and once you open these markets, people would come back again and again to buy horses."

Pons said there are only three animal quarantine centers in the nation -- in New York, Florida and California.

"If we are shipping a horse overseas now, we have to go to New York, Miami and L.A.," he said.

Pons said the cost of transporting horses through distant quarantine centers makes Maryland's stock less attractive to foreign buyers.

"Sometimes, the shipping charges are two or three times the price of the horse," he said.

Menchey said the quarantine center would be patterned after the U.S. Department Agriculture's facility in Newburgh, N.Y.

"If we could get a facility like that, it would reduce transportation costs and open new markets overseas for horses from Maryland and surrounding states," he said.

The state plans to use the grant from the USDA to show the need for a new animal quarantine center and show that a new center would not take business away from the USDA's facilities in New York and Florida, Menchey said.

Theresa Brophy, the state Department of Agriculture's director of international marketing, estimates that 3,500 Maryland horses have been exported since 1997, mainly to South Korea, Ukraine, Russia and the Philippines.

Those countries are primarily interested in racehorses to support their developing racing industry, said Menchey.

A fairly new market, and one that has great potential, is China, where the chief interest is in horses for recreational riding.

"We are just beginning discussions with China," he said, "and they seem more interested in show horses and pleasure horses for riding."

In addition to the quarantine center, the state's horse industry would benefit significantly from the proposed horse park, Menchey said.

After several months of competition among five counties (Anne Arundel, Cecil, Carroll, Frederick and Wicomico) the Maryland Stadium Authority chose the Naval Academy's former dairy farm in Gambrills last October as the site for the planned horse park.

"But it's not a done deal," said Menchey. "It's still on the rope."

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