Maryland has become a draw in recent years for horse breeders who want their mares to give birth to the next racing champion, thanks to money flowing from slot machines that supports the racing industry, one prominent Harford County horse farm owner says.
“It’s kind of emboldened us to take a gamble and make a bet,” Mike Pons, whose family has owned and operated Country Life Farm south of Bel Air for the past 85 years, said following Country Life’s annual stallion show Saturday.
“We could have a whole new level of Maryland raising and breeding that we haven't seen for quite some time,” Pons said.
He said the increased funding for racing is helping Maryland horse farms and generating greater interest from outside the state.
“Maryland has got a very long history of breeding some of the best horses that the thoroughbred breed has ever known,” said Elizabeth Blythe, a bloodstock agent, who lives in Nicholasville, Ky. and has known the Pons family since the early 1980s.
Blythe coordinated the breeding of Cigar, who was born at Country Life in 1990. He won 16 races between 1994 and 1996, including the Breeders Cup Classic, according to the farm’s website. Blythe was invited to assist with Saturday’s show, and she helped announce during the stallion showings.
About 150 people, including breeders from Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and New Jersey, were on hand on an unseasonably warm day to see five Country Life stallions — Freedom Child, Friesan Fire, Mosler, Super Ninety Nine and the newest, Divining Rod.
Pons said the turnout was “the biggest we’ve ever had” for a stallion show.
Divining Rod was a key attraction Saturday. The 6-year-old retired racer, whose dark-brown coat is distinguished by a scattering of white “bird-catcher” spots, is the son of Tapit, his sire, and Precious Kitten, his dam.
He competed against Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and came in third, and he came in second in the 2016 Cigar Mile Handicap race in Queens, N.Y., where Connect beat him by a head.
“It was important for [breeders] to come and see him and hopefully get their support,” Pons said. “The first couple years of a stallion’s career, it's absolutely critical that you get as many high-quality mares as possible.”
Country Life is a part owner of Divining Rod, along with Antony Beck, of Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Ky., and Gretchen and Roy Jackson, of Lael Stables in Unionville, Pa. The horse had been bred on the Jacksons’ farm, and he arrived at Country Life shortly before Christmas, according to Pons.
The Jacksons bred and raced Barbaro, the undefeated 2006 Kentucky Derby champion, who shattered a leg at the start of the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. Despite successful surgery, Barbaro contracted laminitis, a progressive hoof disease, and had to be euthanized the following January.
Pons said Divining Rod, who has a $5,000 stud fee, already has a number of bookings to mares.
“A young stallion, it's like honey that draws bees from all over the place,” he said.
Divining Rod raced until age 5, Pons said. He said most race horses go to stud when they are 5 or 6 years old and can breed for 15 to 20 years.
Roy Jackson said he has known the Pons family for about 30 years. He said it made sense to start Divining Rod’s stud career in the Mid-Atlantic, where he would have more opportunities to mate, rather than in Kentucky, “where there are a huge amount of stallions.”
“I think you would get more numbers here, give him a chance to be a good stallion,” Jackson said.
Horse owners Bruce and Edith Smart, and their guest, Katina Robinson, visited from Upperville, Va.
“I thought he looked pretty nice,” Edith Smart said, of Divining Rod. “The question is, do we have a mare that fits him well?”
Pons cited the importance of a throughbred’s female line.
“Just like people, you've got to have a real good mom and a real good grandmom to have a good person,” he said.
Robinson, the Smarts’ guest, said she is a fan of horse racing and has been to a number of stallion shows.
“I thought he looked great, and [he] was very calm the whole time he was out here,” she said, of Divining Rod.
Elaine Kucharski, of Wilmington, Del., took photos of the five stallions.
The self-described “horse lover” and unit clerk at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., said she takes photos of horses as a hobby and attends as many horse shows as she can.
“I like to watch them on the track and then when they come off the track,” Kucharski said. “I like to follow them this way in their stud career.”
She expressed appreciation for Divining Rod and Friesan Fire, but said all the Country Life stallions are “very nice.”
“The Pons family, they are really very nice people, and the weather is wonderful today,” she said.
Maryland’s horse industry receives 6 percent of the annual revenue from slots, a subsidy of $45 to $50 million a year that goes to racing purses, capital improvements to tracks and bonuses for Maryland-based breeders of horses that place first, second or third in a race, Pons said.
That creates an economic impact of $200 million to $300 million, he said.
The Maryland horse industry suffered for a number of years as surrounding states legalized gaming. Maryland legalized casino gaming in 2008. The state’s six casinos generated more than $141 million in revenue in December 2017, according to a Maryland Lottery and Gaming news release.
“It's a hell of an investment for the state because we've got all these beautiful farms and all this wonderful land . . . If they’re making a profit they'll stay green, and they'll stay a farm,” Pons said.
Country Life’s Divining Rod is one of eight new stallions in Maryland for the 2018 breeding season, according to Pons.
J. William Boniface, whose family owns the Bonita Farm horse operation in Darlington, said Friday that there are usually just “a couple” new stallions each year. Bonita Farm has three of the 2018 season’s stallions, Dortmund, Alliance and Kobe's Back.
“Everything is on the upswing, that's why more people are thinking about breeding in Maryland,” said Boniface, trainer, breeder and co-owner of Deputed Testamony, the 1983 Preakness champion. “We lost a lot of ground to Pennsylvania when they got the slot machines and we didn't have them, but now the tide is turning.”
Blythe, the bloodstock agent, said “Maryland is doing it the right way” with greater funding for purses.
“They are also putting on a racing program that emulates what is found in New York and used to be in Chicago and Kentucky,” she said.