Horse breeder Allen Murray is 76 years old, but when he laughs, he sounds like a much younger man.
"People keep saying to me, 'When are you going to retire?' " Murray says. "I tell them: 'Shoot, I am retired! I retired a long time ago.' "
It's hard to tell, considering how hard he still works. Murray - who owns Murmur Farm near Darlington with his wife Audrey - realizes he's one of the fortunate ones in his business, one of the few who can still say he's having fun and doing what he loves. He has a pair of horses entered in today's Jim McKay Maryland Million at Laurel Park, Celtic Innis and Amazin Sun, and has managed to maintain his breeding business despite the difficult economic climate.
"We've been very lucky," Allen Murray says. "We work very hard and have had some decent horses. I think we have a good shot this year [in the Maryland Million]. ... But you sort of feel like you're the last man standing sometimes. Or one of them, at least."
Maryland's horse breeding industry has taken a serious hit in recent years. It's projected to see an 18 percent decline in 2009, according to the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, as mares are being lured to neighboring states, especially Pennsylvania, by purses boosted by slots money. Maryland, which has more than 200 farms, is now last among the 11 main foal-producing states in the country. For the first time, it trails Pennsylvania, which saw a 29.8 percent increase this year.
Nearly every state, including Maryland, offers bonuses in races to horses that were bred and raised in-state, but the bonuses in states in which slots have been active for several years are typically much larger, putting Maryland at a disadvantage compared with neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"It's hurt us very badly," says Audrey Murray, 74. "Especially with the breeding. Because of the slots in the other states, people are flocking there to breed their mares. We love Maryland racing and we're not going to move, but it's been very tough. Hopefully, we'll survive."
The recent passage of slots legislation in Maryland has given local breeders a glimmer of hope, but for now, farms that board horses have taken a considerable hit. Most of the mares are going to Pennsylvania, according to Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
"There is a core group of farmers, probably about six or so, and the Murrays are one of them, who have hung in there and are hanging on as long as they can," Goodall says. "They must believe that eventually it's going to come around. The slots referendum passing gives you hope. But these things take a long time to be implemented. You worry that there may be a day when they just decide enough is enough."
Maryland horse breeders like the Murrays, however, continue to survive, at least for now, on a combination of good fortune and hard work.
In many respects, the Murrays represent the dream of every working-class Maryland horse breeder. They started their operation in 1959 with just one $800 broodmare, but over time, that dream morphed into a financial fairy tale. In 2002, Our Emblem, a stallion they had purchased for $200,000, turned into a winning lottery ticket when his son, War Emblem, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The Murrays eventually sold Our Emblem for a reported price of more than $10 million.
"My wife and I have never saved any money," Allen Murray says. "No matter what we have, we spend it on the horses. That's just what we do. That's what we love."
That love affair can be traced back to Havre de Grace, where Murray was born and raised. As a teenager, he would go to the local racetrack, as well as the tracks at Laurel and Pimlico, virtually every day there was racing. His family didn't own a car, so when the wealthy horsemen would roll into the parking lot in their Cadillacs, Murray would look on in awe.
"I thought to myself, 'The horse business is the one to be in!' " Murray says. "Havre de Grace really was a racetrack town back then. Everyone moved into one bedroom every spring and rented out the rest of their house because their was no hotels. Thousands of people would come to town, and they needed a place to stay. My family had a five-bedroom house, and we all moved into one bedroom for two weeks. It was fun because of all the people you got to meet."
Murray met his wife when the two were teenagers riding in horse shows. He was smitten with how skilled she was and the fact that he could never beat her. They went roller skating every Thursday when they first started dating. Audrey was raised on a dairy farm in Harford County, so before the two lovebirds were even married, they bought a broodmare. They sold the first yearling for $3,400, the third-highest sale at the Fasig-Tipton sale that year.