Nobody knew the ponies better than Harford's William Boniface [Commentary]

Later this month, the late William "Bill" Boniface will be honored with the 2013 Robert and Anne Heighe Excellence in Equestrian Journalism Award presented by the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College.

It's an easy choice for the award that is well-deserved on a number of levels. Mr. Boniface was an excellent writer about a subject he knew as much about, if not more, than anyone of his generation who covered the Sport of Kings.

I would also have to rank him among the top all-time most interesting people from Harford County. Space doesn't permit a full-blown biography, but it's fair to say he would have been at home in the pages of books and articles by the likes of Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner (Aren't all racing folk immortalized in this way?). Beyond that, he was very much a self-made man who succeeded on many levels. We should all do as well.

My favorite story about Mr. Boniface will no doubt make some family members blush, but I feel compelled to tell it.

A few days after the family's horse, Deputed Testamony, won the 1983 Preakness, Mr. Boniface phoned me to ask a favor.

An old friend, a fellow racing writer from The Boston Globe, was coming to the family's Bonita Farm (the original Bonita in Creswell) to do a story about them, their horse and their incredible run of good fortune. Francis Sears, their partner in Deputed Testamony, was a Boston investment banker.

Would I be able, he asked, to take some photographs for use with the story?

I was flattered. At the time, Mr. Boniface was recently retired from his career as a writer and editor for The Sun - morning and evening at the time. We'd known each other for maybe a decade, not particularly well, but I was a racing fan and well-acquainted with several members of the extended Boniface family, including his sister-in-law, Katherine Anderson, who had been county treasurer, and Judge Edwin Higinbothom.

(In Harford County lore, it was said that if you saw Ms. Anderson or the judge or others with ties to the Boniface family at one of the tracks when they had a horse running, you had better get down on it.)

I also thought I had done a fairly credible job photographing the Preakness, considering I wasn't actually a professional photographer and didn't have working press credentials that day, I'd just happened along with my camera, just in case one of the two horses trained by Mr. Boniface's son, J. William "Billy" Boniface, won. Incidentally, I didn't have a dime on the winner.

On the arranged afternoon, I showed up at the farm, then off of Route 543, and stood around chatting with Mr. Boniface until his friend, accompanied by his wife, arrived in a rental car. There were the usual greetings and such and then, as I accompanied the two men to the kitchen for a drink, the guest, whose name I have forgotten, asked without prompting:

"Say, Bill, do you still hold the cockfights out here?"

Whoops. Mr. Boniface mumbled something and quickened his pace toward the door. Of course, I'd heard stories about cockfights - illegal in Maryland then and now - and of police raids that never really amounted to anyone getting locked up or any prominent names getting into the paper. I had a hard time stifling a grin.

As I prepared to follow Mr. Boniface and his guest inside the house, I glanced over to my left and, lo and behold, alongside a high privet hedge were several rows of small cages. I don't have to tell you what was inside, but I imagine no one living nearby had any difficulty waking up at sunrise each day.

If you are going to be a good writer, you have to be a good storyteller, and Mr. Boniface had few peers when it came to telling a story, particularly if it involved horses and horse racing.

Our last conversation was in 2003, about two years before his death, on the eve of the release of the movie "Seabiscuit," based on the wonderful book of the same name, whose climax comes in the famous 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral at Pimlico.

Mr. Boniface had attended and covered the race and he'd known many of the people around the two horses, both of which had raced at the old track in Havre de Grace during their careers. It was then he told me he was "right proud" to be the owner of a photograph of Seabiscuit, autographed by the horse's owner Charles Howard (who is played by Jeff Bridges in the movie).

He told me he thought the book's author, Laura Hillenbrand, may have exaggerated Tom Smith's supposed aversion to the media. "To anyone who knew about racing, he would talk quite a bit," Mr. Boniface said of Smith. "Then again, all legends become legends because they have been exaggerated."

He also had seen trailers for the movie and questioned director Gary Ross' decision to film the match race scenes at Keeneland Race Track in Kentucky, rather than Pimlico, believing Pimlico looked too contemporary.

"It's hard to make one race track look like another," he chuckled.

The best part of this conversation came when Mr. Boniface told me how his father, Fritz, came to Harford County through a circuitous journey from his native England, that had included stops in Canada and Pennsylvania, before he was hired to manage "the Heighes' farm" near Bel Air.

"That's where Harford Community College is now; that's where I learned to love horses," he said. Call that my Dick Martin moment, as in, "I didn't know that." To receive an award named after people who once employed his father seems very natural.

Mr. Boniface and his son had a close relationship, and J. William Boniface will accept the Charles and Anne Heighe Award at a ceremony on Oct. 24.

Shortly after his father died, the younger Boniface told one of my colleagues who was writing his father's obituary: "He was a very accurate reporter. He didn't take any cheap shots or reveal any confidential sources. I think that was a testament to his character."

And what a character it was.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad