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25 years after `Testamony' victory, industry lagging in state

Maryland Breeding


May 16, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Reporter

His back is swayed like a Nike swoosh. His shaggy coat, a sign of age, would warm a woolly mammoth.

At 28 - ancient for horses - Deputed Testamony looks like he should live at Charlestown. The retirement community, not the racetrack.

Yet there he was, at 8 a.m., cavorting like a youngster in a grassy 2 1/2 -acre paddock at Bonita Farm in Darlington.

In a nearby paddock, another stallion ambled nearer. In a flash, Deputed Testamony crested his neck in defiance and gave the interloper the stink eye.

Hardly the spirit you'd expect of the oldest surviving Preakness winner.

"He's like an old man, with hair growing from his ears and nose, but he still kicks up his heels," said Kevin Boniface, trainer at the Harford County farm.

Twenty-five years ago, Deputed Testamony defeated the field on a sloppy track in an upset victory for the Maryland-bred colt. No homegrown thoroughbred has won the Preakness since.

If he's staying alive until he can pass the torch, Deputed Testamony might have to live forever, Maryland horsemen say.

Of the 132 Preakness champions, eight have been Maryland-breds, half of them coming in the 19th century. And these days, there are simply fewer potential Deputed Testamonys out there.

In the past 10 years, the state has produced 28 percent fewer foals as breeders take their business elsewhere. In 2006, the most recent year for which numbers are available, Maryland produced 852 thoroughbreds, down from 1,189 a decade earlier and less than half of the state's record foal crop of 2,075 in 1987.

Why the slide? Breeders have abandoned Maryland for states whose tracks have slots-enriched purses.

"Our place in the horse universe has dropped a peg or two," said Mike Pons, business manager of Country Life Farm and former president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

The exodus has taken its toll on places like Country Life Farm, the state's oldest thoroughbred breeding facility.

"In five years, we've lost 50 of our 75 mares to states with slots - Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York," Pons said. "And fewer home-breds means you get less at-bats to reach the Preakness."

Jeannine Edwards, an ESPN racing reporter who lives in Cecil County, echoes Pons' point.

"Breeders are responding to the financial dynamics of the sport in Maryland," Edwards said. "The better quality mares and stallions are going elsewhere."

Another reason for the lack of state-bred Preakness winners: Many of the Maryland horsemen who have remained are a realistic lot who often don't think big, observers say.

"The fact that a number of state breeders are targeting the middle market - the allowance or minor stakes level horses - means the odds of a Maryland-bred reaching a Triple Crown race is really not much higher than what history has produced," said David DiPietro, co-founder of the Maryland Stallion Station in Glyndon.

"I don't know that Marylanders really breed horses for the Triple Crown circuit," said Jim Steele, chairman of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. "We get intimidated. People here shy away from the Preakness thinking, `That's for the big boys and we don't have a horse that's good enough' - though they might.

"I don't know that Marylanders have an inferiority complex, but the fact is we're more conservative than Kentucky. Trainers here won't put a horse in the Preakness just to say they did it."

Before he won the 1983 Preakness, you could have said just that about Deputed Testamony.

Of humble roots - his sire, Traffic Cop, stood at stud for a paltry $500 - "DT" was blue-collar to the bone. His dam, Proof Requested, won one race at Charles Town worth $1,797.

Foaled at Bonita Farm, the colt gave no early hint of greatness.

"As a yearling, he liked to have his back scratched after dinner," said J. William Boniface, general manager of the farm. "Otherwise, there was nothing special about him."

The horse began his racing career with a botched moniker. The word "Testimony" was misspelled and never corrected. His first three outings were claiming races; his early times, pedestrian.

"Somewhere along the way, DT's light bulb came on," said J. William Boniface, then his trainer.

When Deputed Testamony finally made it to the Preakness, his handlers couldn't give away the ride. Five jockeys turned down Boniface before 19-year-old Donnie Miller Jr., who was half deaf, climbed aboard.

Few thoroughbreds have run in the Preakness with such common connections. Pedigree, schmedigree. On May 21, on a sloppy track, Deputed Testamony - a 14-to-1 shot - won the race going away.

Early on, the horse stayed close, then surged past the leader, Desert Wine, at the top of the stretch, deliberately staying nearest the rail in the mud. Everyone else steered way clear of the rail, afraid of the poor footing there. But Miller, the leading rider at Pimlico, knew every inch of the track and how it played in the rain.

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