Gambling on horses isn't only confined to the mutuel windows at the race track or to a TwinSpires or TVG online account.

Before any thoroughbred even stands in its birthing stall, considerable study and financial investment will have gone into the mating that produced it, and that might be the biggest gamble of all.

Breeding the stock that will one day race on the track and then replenish itself in the breeding shed is the lifeblood of the thoroughbred industry that is trying to revive itself in Maryland after a decade of acute economic hard knocks.

The success of any breeding program starts with the stallion and therein lies the rub, for no matter how good he might have been on the race track, no matter how supposedly regal his own bloodlines, like a hot stock or mutual fund, neither pedigree nor past performance is any guarantee of future success as a progenitor.

"That's our game," said Ken Wilkins, stallion manager for Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky., one of the top breeding farms in Bluegrass Country. "No one knows where the next great one's coming from."

Wilkins was among the estimated 200 people who visited Country Life Farm just south of Bel Air Saturday afternoon, as owners Josh and Mike Pons and other members of the extended family showed off three young stallions they hope could be among the coming great ones.

Earlier in the day, Friesan Fire, who entered stud duty in 2012; Cal Nation, who began breeding last year; and Freedom Child, who will cover his first mares in about a week, were moved from the Pons Brothers' Merryland Farm in Baltimore County to their new home in Country Life's refurbished stallion barn.

Revived hopes

This year's breeding season, which begins in the middle of February, will be the first at Country Life Farm in several years and, if it represents a revival of sorts for the farm, it also signals an upswing for Maryland's thoroughbred horse industry.

The Pons brothers say they hope each of their young stallions will cover at least 50 mares over the next six weeks, possibly more, which is one reason why they invited both current and prospective clients to take a look at them Saturday.

"We had a pretty good mix today," Mike Pons said. "There were some old clients, and some people with whom we've owned pieces of horses in recent years and some new folks we hope will join us."

As each stallion was walked along the row in front of their spacious, rebuilt stalls for a handful of latecomers, there was a positive vibe. The three horses were alert and interested in those looking at them, and they looked beautiful.

Among those in the late arriving group was Dr. Tom Bowman, one of the state's most successful breeders. Bowman is a partner in Heritage Stallions, a new breeding farm that opened earlier this year near Chesapeake City and will stand 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and five other stallions. Bowman was also instrumental in establishing both the Maryland and Pennsylvania divisions of Northview Stallion Station, whose roster includes Not for Love, among the Middle Atlantic region's top sires in terms money won by offspring.

In the 1990s, Country Life was home to two of the Middle Atlantic region's hottest stallions, Allen's Prospect and Carnivalay. Hundreds of mares were bred to them each winter and early spring and many of the mares stayed behind to give birth and be bred again, while nursing their newborns in the farm's meadows along Route 1.

When the two stallions grew old and passed on, one of their replacements was an up-and-comer named Malibu Moon, whose first crop of foals had immediate success on the race track and turned heads of breeders around the world.

Malibu Moon achieved his initial success as a stallion, however, at a time when Maryland's entire horse industry from farm to track was in economic free fall, after Delaware and then West Virginia and Pennsylvania approved slots gambling and dedicated significant amounts of the revenue from the slots to racing purses and breeding incentive programs.

With no slots revenue or similar enhancements to compete, Maryland breeders like the Pons brothers watched as the owners of even modestly bred broodmares sent their horses to other states to give birth. Soon, the top quality stallions followed. After standing four years at Country Life, Malibu Moon went to Spendthrift Farm, and even more moderately successful stallions that had stood at Country Life, such as Parker's Storm Cat and Oratory, ended up elsewhere, in Washington State and Texas, respectively.

"I like to joke that both got good after I sent them out of town," said Mike Pons of the latter two, who sired multiple stakes winners, though not as good as Malibu Moon, whose already brilliant stud career jumped to another level last May, when his son, Orb, won the Kentucky Derby.

Turning tide

But the tide has begun to turn, said Josh Pons, who is president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.