Want a tip on this Saturday's Preakness?
"In these big races, it's all about the horse that's peaking," J. William Boniface says, giving Orb's recent win in the Kentucky Derby as an example.
He should know, because 30 years ago Boniface was training a horse with a low-budget pedigree and an impossibly misspelled name that he knew was reaching his peak on the third Saturday in May.
Late on the afternoon of May 21, 1983, the Boniface family's lives and fortunes took a dramatic leap in the last 300 yards of the muddy home stretch at Pimlico, when their colt Deputed Testamony ran authoritatively along the rail to capture the 108th running of the Preakness, with a nice payout of $31 on a $2 win bet. Deputed Testamony, who died last September at age 32, is still the only winner of Maryland's premier horse race to be bred, owned, trained and ridden by Marylanders.
His stellar racing record notwithstanding — he won 11 of 20 starts with three seconds and $674,000 in purses, Deputed Testamony was more than a horse, he became a much beloved member of a family steeped in Maryland's racing history.
Boniface, 71, has been around horses all his life, beginning his career as a hotwalker and exercise boy while a teenager. Back in the day, he was known as "Billy," to distinguish him from his father, the late William "Bill" Boniface, a much respected turf writer and editor for The Evening Sun who died in 2005. Today, Boniface has ceded the "Billy" to his own son, William K. Boniface, the family politician who is serving a second term as president of the Harford County Council.
It's a close-knit family boasting five generations of horsemen and horsewomen and counting. They've had some hard knocks of late. In addition to losing their 400-acre Bonita Farm's foundation stallion last year, the younger Boniface's oldest son, Benjamin, was killed last June in an accident with his pickup truck on the farm. During the current foaling season, the last broodmare sired by Deputed Testamony died while giving birth, "but she gave us a filly, so the line will carry on," Billy Boniface says.
On a sunny morning late last week, Bonita Farm, which stretches along a hillside in the Deer Creek Valley of northeastern Harford County, was pretty quiet, with most of the morning training and feeding chores done. The elder Boniface, who was working in the farm office with his wife, Joan, took some time to sit and talk about that rainy Saturday afternoon in Northwest Baltimore almost 30 years earlier. It's one he never tires of telling.
He had a client, an investment banker from Boston named Francis Sears, who was looking to breed a cheap mare, named Proof Requested, who had been running mostly at Charles Town. Boniface offered stallion Traffic Cop, who was standing for a $1,000 stud fee at the original Bonita Farm, which was southeast of Bel Air. (The family acquired and built the current farm in 1984-85 with money made from Deputed Testamony's post-racing, $5 million stallion syndication.)
"It was an old-fashioned deal; he [Sears] had the mare and we put up the stud fee," Boniface recalled. They went partners on the bay colt, born on May 7, 1980, Billy Boniface's 16th birthday. The story how the colt got his name goes something like this: A lawyer friend who also owned and bred horses suggested "Disputed Testimony," but somehow it got contorted into "Deputed Testamony" on the forms submitted to The Jockey Club, which registers Thoroughbred names.
Boniface says from the time he began training the horse as a 2-year-old, he believed he had a future champion in his stable.
"My intent all along was to run him in the Kentucky Derby," he said. He shipped him to Lexington, Ky., to run in a major prep for the Derby, the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, but the colt ran poorly, finishing sixth, and came down with a fever following the race. "We forgot about the Derby. I got him well and we aimed for the Preakness," Boniface says.
If Boniface was optimistic about his horse's chances at Pimlico, others were not. His regular jockey, Herb McCauley, chose to ride Parfaitment, a 16th-place Derby finisher that Boniface also trained and had entered in the Preakness. Boniface turned to Donald Miller Jr., a 19-year-old from Laurel. It was a wise choice. "He [Miller] rode a beautiful race."
It rained the night before the Preakness and it was still raining when the two Boniface-trained horses, with Billy riding in the back with them, were vanned from the farm to the race track that morning. By the time the 14 horses entered in the Preakness went to the post, the Boniface entry of Deputed Testamony and Parfaitment was 14-1 on the tote board; the Derby winner Sunny's Halo was sent off as an even-money favorite.
"I watched from halfway up the stairway to the jocks' room," Boniface recalled. "When they got to the top of the stretch and I saw where they were, I knew we had it won."
As Miller guided Deputed Testamony along the rail, with about a 16th of a mile to go they emerged from the pack and pulled away, causing a collective gasp from the spectators near the finish line. When the colt and Miller crossed the finish line, it touched off a wild celebration among the Boniface clan.
"My wife was down in the lower level of the grandstand when the race started and watched it on the TV monitor," Boniface said. "When the race was over, she started yelling 'We won! We won!' Somebody came up to her and said, 'Lady, I'm glad you won your bet,' " and Joan said, " 'You don't understand. That's our horse that won the Preakness!' "
Talk of the town
For the next couple of weeks, Deputed Testamony and the Bonifaces were big news, not just nationally, but internationally. Perhaps the 1983 Preakness presaged what was to come three decades later, but prior to the race there was all sorts of controversy about the medications Bute, an anti-inflammatory drug, and Lasix, a diuretic used to forestall bleeding from the nostrils. At the time, horses were permitted to run with one or both in some states and not in others.
None of the pre-race brouhaha affected Boniface or his colt. "We never used the drugs on him; I didn't like them," he said. After the Preakness, people took note. Stories emphasized Boniface's old-fashioned "hay and oats" approach to training. Although he eventually used the permitted medications, he says he did so reluctantly.
In recent years, Boniface has turned management of the farm to his children. He no longer trains horses. That has fallen to his son Kevin and daughter Kimberly, while another son John is learning the trade. Billy is in charge of their one remaining stallion, the regally bred Etched, who came to Bonita from leading international breeder Darley Stud in 2011. "I'm the general partner," the father says, smiling.
He's also become something of a de facto goodwill ambassador for Maryland racing, always quick with a good story and opinion about what can be done to shake his sport out of its current economic slide.
Boniface said he thinks people will one day start coming back to the sport. He noted that some of his friends and neighbors bought land in Pennsylvania to chase slots money fueling the racing purses there when Maryland didn't have slots. Not him or his family.
"This is where we started and it's where we'll stay," he said. "Stay where you've got your roots."
On Saturday, Boniface plans to be at Pimlico, not so much to dwell in the past as to watch the future. One, and possibly two, of his children will have horses they train running on the Preakness undercard.
Is there another Deputed Testamony in the making? Maybe not yet, but there's always the possibility, as their father well knows.