Harford horse panel saddles up

Task force has 90 days to decide on equine park

August 11, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Robert L. Johnson can readily recall the famous horses that ran at the Havre de Grace track in Harford County more than a half century ago. He is certain that the town's rich history is reason enough to build a new horse park and revive the state's equine industry.

The Harford County Council decided Johnson was the ideal candidate to lead a horse park task force that will ultimately decide the project's fate. Johnson envisions a 21st-century facility that will highlight the county's equestrian heritage, enhance local tourism and boost equine commerce.

In the decades before 1950, Johnson, who has lived his entire 81 years in the town that sits along the banks of the Susquehanna River, would eagerly await the arrival of the thoroughbreds. Rooming houses filled with guests, and restaurants could barely keep up with the crowds. The newspapers that he delivered as a boy printed extras with race results and the next day's entries.

"Every famous horse raced at Havre de Grace," Johnson said.

Route 40 was jammed with motorists bound for the grandstands. Passenger trains ran race specials and river boats ferried visitors to watch the likes of Sea Biscuit, Citation and War Admiral.

When the track closed in April 1950, it sold its racing dates to Pimlico and the grounds to the Maryland National Guard.

The task force, which includes county administrators, representatives from the farm and horse industries, and a veterinarian, will take 90 days to decide if a horse park is feasible. The seven-member panel will also choose a location, determine appropriate uses for the facility and decide who should manage it.

Given the amount of research already completed, the task is doable, said Johnson, a retired financial manager and chairman of the county's budget advisory board.

He helped put together the Harford horse park bid submitted to the Maryland Stadium Authority two years ago. Harford, one of six counties vying for the park, lost out to Anne Arundel, but the winning proposal to locate it on the grounds of the Naval Academy dairy farm faltered amid community opposition and mounting cost estimates.

"I am glad Arundel people complained," said Steve Quick, owner of the 130-acre St. Omer's Horse Farm north of Bel Air. "Harford County will take this park. Think of all the benefits, economic and educational, this county would get from a horse park."

The authority, originally created to build Baltimore's baseball and football stadiums, conducted a feasibility study for a park patterned on the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, which draws nearly 1 million visitors annually to its horse shows, museum and campground. The study found the project would have a $122 million annual economic impact on the state.

The proposal is now the responsibility of the Maryland Horse Industry Board.

"The board is committed to the project and intends to see it through to completion," said J. Robert Burk, the board's executive director.

In light of Anne Arundel's rejection of the park, the board is re-evaluating Harford's proposal along with those of other original bidders, Burk said. Though the state is facing a budget crisis and deferring large capital projects, an economic generator like the horse park might move forward, Burk said. The board also supports efforts to build smaller parks throughout the state, he said.

"We would like to see public horse facilities in several counties," Burk said.

A horse park could help boost the state's sagging horse industry through equine shows and sales, Quick said. Maryland's refusal to allow slots at tracks has made the state less competitive, he said.

"The horse industry is falling behind neighboring states," Quick said.

If Harford moves ahead, the facility would be built in phases, Johnson said. With an initial $5 million investment and county-owned land, the park could start with an auction barn and training track. Stall fees from several hundred animals might generate as much as $1.5 million annually and would quickly help repay the construction cost, he said.

"We are an ideal location to foster the horse industry, not only in Maryland but in the surrounding states," he said. "Eventually, this place will be self-sustaining."

As revenues grow, the park could expand with a museum, an amphitheater, campgrounds and maybe a retirement center for horses.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig and County Council President Billy Boniface, a horse farmer and breeder, both support the plan.

"This is a project that definitely warrants additional study," said Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents Havre de Grace. "The park could preserve our rich equestrian history."

The first thoroughbred stallion came to the United States through Havre de Grace in the 18th century and has lent its name -- Bulle Rock -- to a nationally known golf course in the town.

The first televised horse race in Maryland was at the Havre de Grace track. Cigar, the top-earning thoroughbred, was born at a Harford farm. The last Maryland-bred Preakness winner, Deputed Testimony, resides at Bonita Farm, Boniface's home.

"I know people will come here to see horses," Johnson said. "I think we can give them something great."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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