Money can keep Md. breeders producing

October 14, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Maryland racing's greatest asset? That's easy. It's the Preakness, middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

What comes after that? It's a little less obvious or glamorous, but the state's breeding industry is well-known for its quality stallions and top-notch horsemen.

Competition from slots-enhanced tracks in Delaware, West Virginia and (soon) Pennsylvania has staggered Maryland racing, but the state's breeding industry remains a regional jewel - maybe not Kentucky's equal, but estimable in its own right. Those neighboring states are faring better as breeders, too, but they can't match the quality of horses produced here or the care those horses receive.

Today's Maryland Million, reserved for the offspring of Maryland sires, celebrates the state's enduring ability to breed and develop fine racehorses. More than 21,000 fans attended last year's Million and more are expected today at Laurel Park - evidence of a devoted constituency many other racing states would love to have.

"We have it all in many respects," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But things are very uncertain going forward, to say the least. The next four years are crucial to the breeding industry. We're being bombarded on all fronts."

The tracks in neighboring states not only offer higher overall purses because of slots, but they also give out more money to runners bred in their home states. States use these "bred funds" to stimulate breeding.

Pennsylvania has $11 million in its fund for Pennsylvania-breds, Goodall said, and that figure is expected to soar when slots finally begin clanking in the state next month. Goodall fears Maryland, with just $5 million in its fund, is about to get left behind.

"As the incentive to breed elsewhere increases, the harder it's going to get to keep luring good stallions here," she said. "It's just economics. If there's more money elsewhere, that's where people will go."

The general trend is inescapably gloomy. The number of sires standing in Maryland has dropped from 92 to 74 since 2003. And the size of Maryland's annual foal crop shrank 23.4 percent between 1994 and 2004, according to Jockey Club statistics.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's annual foal crop grew 15.1 percent and West Virginia's rose an astounding 124.1 percent between 1994 and 2004.

"It's a slippery slope, and we're on it. We're slipping," Goodall said.

Maryland has avoided a more devastating downturn because so many highly regarded horse farms are entrenched here. Northview Stallion Station, Country Life Farm, Maryland Stallion Station, Bonita Farm and Murmur Farm are just a few of the many places that help preserve Maryland's reputation.

There are fine farms in other states, of course, including Pin Oak Lane Farm in New Freedom, Pa., just across the Maryland line. But Maryland still has more attractive sires. Not For Love, a Northview stallion, has been the leading American sire based outside of Kentucky since 2003. Murmur's Louis Quatorze is right behind him this year.

"But the economic situation remains a huge problem for the people who have invested here," Goodall said. "I don't think they want to leave by any means, but at some point they would have to consider it."

How can Maryland pump more money into its breeding business and staunch the bleeding? One way would be to approve slots, but that's a tired story and it would be foolish to expect salvation at this point. (Although the racing industry is carefully monitoring the gubernatorial election, wondering if the Democratic obstructionists who have opposed slots might be more inclined to work with a Democratic governor.)

Another way to help breeders would be for the legislature to authorize a "bred fund" subsidy, but Goodall said the fund hasn't received a subsidy since 2001. She added that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, a racing supporter, wrote a $10 million subsidy into his most recent budget, but it was tossed out.

"We're politically challenged," Goodall said. "We're arguing for slots not because we love slots so much - if those other states didn't have them, we probably wouldn't be arguing. We just need money, one way or another. It's going to be a difficult situation here otherwise."

It's a testament to the breeding industry's resolve that it has survived and even prospered in a difficult climate. There are 115 horses entered in today's 12-race Million program. The major events will be televised on Ch. 54.

The Million, which sportscaster Jim McKay invented in 1986, just keeps getting bigger and better. If the organizers are lucky, they'll wind up with a headline as infectious as last year's, when a 4-year-old named Play Bingo rallied from nearly 20 lengths back to win the Classic, the featured race.

"The Million is always a great day," Goodall said. "We're looking forward to another this year."

It's time to give the breeding industry some of what it needs to make sure such "great" days continue to occur.

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