Horses and Harford County have been synonymous for most of the county's 242-year history, and the Sport of Kings has a proud local heritage with some of the greatest thoroughbred champions of the past 150 years having strong local ties.
The county was once home to two race tracks in Bel Air and Havre de Grace and while both have been closed for decades, their memories live on in the hearts of many older residents, who have in turn handed down stories about both to succeeding generations.
The Bel Air track, which operated from the 1870s to 1960, was on the site of present day Harford Mall and was part of a larger county fairgrounds. Originally about a half-mile, the track underwent significant upgrades in the late 1930s, when it was acquired by Pennsylvanian G. Ray Bryson, who rebuilt part of the grandstand and boosted the racing oval to three-quarters of a mile.
Bel Air was part of Maryland fair circuit of half- and three-quarter mile tracks that included Marlboro, Cumberland, Upper Marlboro, Hagerstown, Frederick and Timonium, with only the latter still in operation. All that's left from the Bel Air racing days is a building at the corner of Route 24 and Business Route 1 that was the jockey quarters and today is a mattress store.
In its heyday, the Havre de Grace Racetrack was as big-time as it gets during a period when horse racing, along with baseball and boxing, were considered the big three of American spectator sports.
The mile track off Post Road and Old Bay Lane opened in 1912, the creation of a New York and Kentucky interests looking for an East Coast location to have racing and betting, after the State of New York outlawed gambling on races. Neither New Jersey nor Pennsylvania permitted gambling, either, but Maryland did and the Havre de Grace site, which was adjacent to the Pennsylvania Railroad (horses primarily were transported by rail in those days), was an ideal location.
Havre de Grace hosted meetings for two to three weeks each spring and again in the fall, except during the World War II period. Those meetings were preludes to the Triple Crown series in the spring and later for the big New York races in the fall, so they usually drew the top horses and thousands of fans daily.
Among the classic horses who raced at Havre de Grace were Man O' War, Exterminator, Sir Barton, War Admiral, Seabiscuit and Citation. It was said that sportsman Samuel Riddle, who owned by Man O' War and his son War Admiral loved Havre de Grace because it was only a few hour train ride for his horses from his Glen Riddle Farm near Ocean City and the track was a deep, sandy loam soil similar to what the horses trained on at Glen Riddle.
Competition and politics killed off both Harford County race tracks. Havre de Grace was the first to go, in 1950, soon after racing returned to New Jersey following World War II, cutting into attendance locally and prompting other Maryland track owners to scheme for the Havre de Grace racing dates, which were controlled by the governor and state legislators. The fair track circuit met a similar demise at the hands of the mile track owners and politicians. Bel Air's closing was hastened by the death of Ray Bryson in 1958 and the attractiveness of the site for future development.
Much of the Havre de Grace track remains more than 65 years after the last race was run. The property is owned by the Maryland National Guard, which converted the old grandstand, clubhouse and paddock for its use, and portions of the race track itself can be seen on the grounds. A historical marker recalling the track's heyday sits along Old Bay Lane.
Breeding, training, winning, characters
One of Maryland's biggest thoroughbred breeding centers in the first half of the 20th Century was Prospect Hill Farm, about five miles east of Bel Air off Route 22, owned by the late Robert and Anne Heighe. Today the farm is the campus of Harford Community College and the Heighes' home is a campus museum.
The farm is associated not just with horses but also with a prominent Maryland and Harford County racing family, the Bonifaces, starting with Fritz Boniface, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s and managed Prospect Hill Farm in the 1930s. During that time, three of his four sons developed a passion for horse racing: Jack and Sydney Boniface became trainers and William became racing editor for The Baltimore Sun. Jack Boniface trained various winners for Prospect Hill over the years including Zay, Emmy Fish and Rehearsal.
William's son, J. William Boniface, started out as a jockey and moved into training and in 1983 trained a 3-year-old colt born at the family's original Bonita Farm off Route 543 in Creswell named Deputed Testamony to win Maryland's biggest horse race, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Off that success, J. William and his family established a new, larger Bonita Farm off Route 165 in Darlington, where two more generations of the family are involved in breeding, training and riding.
Family lore says Adolphe Pons came south to Maryland in 1933 looking for a place to establish his own thoroughbred farm after working as a "turf advisor" to August Belmont II, whose father was one of the leaders of the American thoroughbred breeding movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1918, Pons handled the sale of a Belmont bred yearling, named Man O' War, by Belmont's wife while he was serving in France during World War I to Pennsylvania Textile merchant and sportsman Samuel Riddle.
Pons found a place he liked, a dairy farm about two miles west of the Bel Air Race Track, and renamed it Country Life Farm. Being on Route 1, the location was convenient to getting back to New York, notes his grandson, Josh Pons.
"The great handicap horse Discovery carried Pons' silks as a 2-year-old in 1933, while the foundation broodmare Raise You was bred by Country Life in 1946," according to the Country Life Farm website. "The cross of Discovery's grandson, Native Dancer, with Raise You produced the great progenitor, Raise a Native. As the sire of Mr. Prospector and Alydar, these two Country Life products appear in the pedigrees of the majority of modern Thoroughbreds."
Pons' sons John and Joseph inherited the farm following his death. Today Country Life is run by Joseph's sons, Josh and Mike, and in addition to the breeding and foal nursery near Bel Air, their operation today includes Merryland Farm in Hydes, Baltimore County. The 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Carry Back was conceived at Country Life through a mating with its stallion Saggy and the 1995 and 1996 North American Horse of the Year Cigar was born at the farm. Other notable County Life stallions have included Allen's Prospect, Carnivalay and Malibu Moon, sire of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb.
The first Harford County resident to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (1978), Leland Sanford "Larry" MacPhail was another migrant to Bel Air from the north who was looking for a place in the country and found it on a 400-acre dairy farm east of town. He renamed the spread Glenangus in honor of the herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle he established there.
The onetime president of the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers and a part owner of the New York Yankees, who is credited with bringing night baseball to the Major Leagues, MacPhail had a formidable thoroughbred breeding operation at Glenangus in the late 1940s that flourished into the 1960s. He later sold off part of the farm for the Maryland Golf & Country Clubs and exited the horse business. MacPhail also led a syndicate that owned the Bowie Race Course and served as track president for about a year in the early 1950s.
Grover Greer Delp, known as "Bud" or "Buddy," was born in Creswell in 1938. His father died in a drowning accident when Delp was a boy, and his mother married a Bel Air based horse trainer named Raymond Archer, who lived on the old Mt. Soma estate of Route 1. Delp would follow in his stepfather's footsteps, becoming a top Maryland based trainer in the 1960s. In 1979, Delp reached the pinnacle of his trade when he trained Spectacular Bid to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, followed by an undefeated 1980 campaign for which Spectacular Bid was named North American Horse of the Year.
Well remembered for his quip that Spectacular Bid was "the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle," Delp was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 2002. He died in December 2006.
The late Allen Murray, who died in 2013, told the story that he became interested in horses and racing while living in "projects" in Havre de Grace, just off the backstretch of the famed race track. He and his wife, Audrey, a pony club rider, parlayed an $800 broodmare they purchased in 1959 into one of the region's most successful breeding and racing enterprises, Murmur Farm in Darlington. Notable stallions that have stood at Murmur include Norquestor, 1996 Preakness winner Louis Quatorze, Cherokee's Boy and Our Emblem, sire of 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem.
Some notable horses with Harford ties:
Cudgel – Won the 1919 Havre de Grace Handicap by defeating the first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton and the top handicap horse Exterminator.
Man O' War – His victory in the Potomac Handicap at Havre de Grace on Sept. 18, 1920, was the next to the last in his illustrious career and file race in the U.S. (He won his final race 24 days later at a track in Windsor, Ontario, Canada).
Seabiscuit – Seabiscuit prepped for his 1938 match race against Man O' War by winning a handicap race at Havre de Grace the week before.
Saggy – His 1948 upset of future Triple Crown winner Citation in the 1948 Chesapeake Trial at Havre de Grace is still considered the most memorable race at the old track.
Carry Back – A $400 mating of Saggy and an unheralded mare named Joppy at Country Life Farm in 1957 produced the 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion.
Jameela – Bred and owned for most of her four-year racing career by Betty Worthington of Churchville, Jameela was a Grade 1 stakes winning mare who was the first Maryland bred horse to earn more than $1 million in race purses. Her son Gulch was the 1988 sprint champion and his son Thunder Gulch won the 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Gulch's son Point Given was the 2001 Horse of the Year after winning the Preakness, Belmont and Travers stakes.
Deputed Testamony – Winner of the 1983 Preakness, the Bonita Farm colt later set a track record at Pimlico for a mile and one-sixteenth and retired from racing to a successful stud career prior to his death in 2012.
Go for Gin – The 1994 Kentucky Derby winner stood at stud at Bonita Farm until his retirement.
Cigar – Born at Country Life Farm on April 14, 1990, Cigar established North American records for career earnings and consecutive races won prior to his retirement after the 1996 season. He died in 2014.
Havre de Grace – Owner Rick Porter named his 2011 American Thoroughbred Horse of the Year after the city and in homage to its race track.