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News Maryland Harford County Bel Air

'Beauty In Sport' exhibit honors Harford's rich horse racing legacy

The story of how thoroughbred racing and the rural communities of Harford County became intertwined is told in artifacts and pictures through January as part of an exhibit at the Hays-Heighe House on the campus of Harford Community College.

The exhibit opens this weekend and is entitled "Beauty in Sport: Celebrating Horse Racing in Harford County." Featured are photographs, paintings, racing silks and equestrian memorabilia, some dating from as far back as the early 1900s.

Part of the allure of "Beauty in Sport" should be the venue. The Hays-Heighe house was once the manor house for Prospect Hill Farm, one of the region's largest thoroughbred horse farms that later became HCC's campus 50 years ago.

The exhibit opens to the general public with an event billed as "A Day at the Races," from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, on the grounds of the college at 401 Thomas Run Road in Bel Air. Saturday's event is geared to families with children and features pony rides, pony grooming, horseshoe toss, instruction on making and racing stick horses, and an opportunity to learn how to design a hat for race day. Food will be available for purchase.

Friday, on the eve of "A Day at the Races" will be a reception featuring noted equestrian writer Patrick Smithwick, author of the new book "Flying Change: A Year of Racing and Family and Steeplechasing," as well as the memoir, "Racing My Father."

Patrick Smithwick is the son of legendary steeplechase rider and trainer A.P. Smithwick, and hie is expected to discuss his books and life in the racing world. Tickets for the reception and luncheon cost $15 in advance and $20 at the door. It is being held in the Chesapeake Center on the college campus and will be followed by a book-signing event. For reservations, go to or call 443-412-2316.

As of Wednesday, about 100 tickets to the reception had been sold, according to Carol Allen, director of library and information resources at the college and also director of the Hays-Heighe House.

After this weekend's opening events, the exhibit will be open Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon.

What you'll see

The "Beauty in Sport" exhibit includes more than 30 race day photographs from the 1930s and 1940s; family photographs from the personal collections of the Heighe, Boniface and Mergler families; Prospect Hill racing silks; stadium seats from the old Bel Air Race Track, which once stood at the site now occupied by Harford Mall, and other memorabilia related to Prospect Hill and Harford County horse racing.

The exhibit also features the legacies of Prospect Hill trainers Jack Boniface and Joe Mergler and racing writer and historian Joseph B. Kelly.

The core of the exhibit consists of race day photographs of Anne Heighe's horses during the years when Joe Mergler worked as the Prospect Hill trainer. 

Hays-Heighe director Allen recounted in an e-mail: "Ann Persson and I stumbled onto a small number of these photographs about a year ago, while shopping for house furnishings at Seneca Cannery in Havre de Grace. We soon learned of the connection between the cannery and the Mergler family and proceeded to purchase additional photographs. Mr. Mergler has kindly loaned for this exhibit other artifacts from his father's days at Prospect Hill. Members of the Boniface family, in particular Carol Himmer, have generously made photographs and memorabilia available for the exhibit, as have Mrs. Eleanor Edwards (whose parents lived and worked at Prospect Hill), Mr. Allen Fair and the Historical Society of Harford County."

Allen went on to note that another family associated with the Prospect Hill Farm, the Weavers, represented by Sam Weaver, has contributed photographs to be used in the exhibit.

Though autumn may not seem like a natural choice for opening a horse racing exhibit, there good reasons for the timing.

Allen said in her e-mail: "We chose the month of October since there are so many important events each October pertaining to horse racing within the county and the state – including the Maryland Million and the Graw Days Festival in Havre de Grace. In particular, since 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of The Graw race track in Havre de Grace, we felt this was a good time for our first significant exhibit related to horse racing and horse breeding in Harford County."

Graw days was celebrated this past Saturday, so this weekend's festivities at Harford Community College don't conflict with the centennial celebration in Havre de Grace.

The Boniface connection

The Boniface Family is synonymous in Maryland with horse racing. The late Fritz Boniface, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, 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.

The Boniface family continues its legacy in Harford County horse racing with Bonita Farm in Darlington, which was the home of the 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony, who died at 32 in September. J. William Boniface, grandson of Fritz Boniface and son of William Boniface, is the general manager and partner of Bonita Farm. In addition to training and owning a Preakness winner, he also holds the distinction of having trained three horses to win at the 1987 Maryland Million.

J. William Boniface's children continue the Boniface family tradition in horse racing. Billy Boniface is breeding division manager at Bonita. He also is the Harford County Council president. His brothers Kevin and John are trainers, as is his sister, Kim.

The Mergler connection

The late Joe Mergler also came from a family long involved in horse racing.

Before becoming a trainer for Prospect Hill Farm in the 1940s, he rose through the ranks as a hot walker and then a jockey. When he found he had trouble keeping his weight below the maximum 105 pounds, the Heighes asked him to stay with the farm, and he became a trainer.

Some of Mr. Mergler's more famous winners included include Adroit, winner of the 1946 Black Helen Handicap; Rene B., who won the 1944 Lady Maryland; and Seer, winner of the 1951 Maryland Futurity.

Chronicler of the turf

Also recognized in the exhibit is Joseph B. Kelly, recipient of the first Robert and Anne Heighe Award for Excellence in Equestrian Journalism. Mr. Kelly has covered horse racing in Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic region for nearly 70 years.

Kelly witnessed Citation's first win at Havre de Grace Race Track in 1947. Also that year, he was part of Baltimore's first live remote television broadcast on October 30 on WMAR-TV, when he called the fifth and sixth races at Pimlico with his then Baltimore Sun colleague Jim McKay.

Kelly began his career at The Baltimore Sun in the 1940s then moved to The Washington Star in 1955 where he spent the next 26 years covering racing. He won a national honor from the Thoroughbred Racing Association for a story about the 1968 Kentucky Derby winner Dancer's Image, a Maryland bred and only Derby winner to be disqualified from the top spot because of a medication violation discovered in a post-race test.

Over the years, Kelly worked as a track publicist for Laurel and Pimlico and contributed to the Maryland Horse Magazine. He became the founding publicity director for the Maryland Million in 1986. He continues to work in horse racing and is a historical consultant to the Maryland Jockey Club. The Maryland Racing Media Association awarded Kelly its Unsung Hero Award in 2007.

The exhibit and related events are coordinated by Ann Persson, the former Coordinator for the Hays-Heighe House and current Hays-Heighe director Allen, along with Hays-Heighe House Advisory Committee members Sharon Stowers, Terry Troy, Lois Kissinger Kelly and Lisha Sturgill. Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County and someone who is well-acquainted with the extensive history and culture of the equine industry and recreation within Maryland, also assisted. Honorary committee members included: Boniface, Pons, and Murray families as well as Joseph and Pat Mergler, Allen J. Fair, Eleanor Edwards, County Executive David Craig, Del. Mary-Dulany James, and James and Lynn LaCalle. 

The farm

The Hays-Heighe House was once the centerpiece of Robert and Anne Heighe's 225-acre Prospect Hill Farm from 1921 until Mrs. Heighe's death in 1953. The Heighes established a successful thoroughbred stud farm and raced winners at East Coast race tracks. Prospect Hill was also the last home and burial location for the 1914 Epsom Derby winner, Durbar II, whom Mr. Heighe inherited from his aunt.

"We hope, over time, to build a small, permanent collection of photographs, manuscripts, and other memorabilia connected to the house, which will help us to tell the story of its inhabitants – both human and equine," Allen said via e-mail.

She noted in a phone conversation, the Hays-Heighe House has limited hours (Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon) but it still manages to attract several visitors each week. The building also is used for college classes and meetings, and is available for rent for private events.

"We're still in the growing stages," Allen said in a follow up phone conversation Wednesday.

The historic Hays-Heighe house was substantially renovated by the college and re-opened for use in 2010. The initial exhibit on display there was entitled "Made By Hand," which focused on the construction of the house. Though the Hays family had the house built, its construction was possibly linked to a freed slave and the exhibit focused, to a degree, on this aspect of local construction enterprises.

Since then there have been other exhibits, as noted by Allen in her e-mail. Prior to the "Beauty in Sport" exhibit's opening, a show focused on the Bicentennial Commemoration of the War of 1812 was put in place in another portion of the Hays-Heighe house.

"Both of these exhibits will be in place through January 2013," Allen said.

Coming events

"As we have done each of the past two years, we will partner with the HCC Rites of Passage program to develop programming and/or exhibits for Black History Month in February," she continued. "We are delighted that we were one of 40 libraries nationwide (and the only library in Maryland) to receive an NEH-funded grant from the American Library Association to host the traveling exhibit that marks the 400th anniversary of the creation of the King James Bible."

That exhibit, entitled: "Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible," was developed by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., according to Allen. It will be in place at the Hays-Heighe House from mid-April through mid-May of 2013.

"Finally, we were also fortunate to have been awarded grant support from the Maryland Living Traditions program of the Maryland State Arts Council, which will support an ethnographic research study of the Welsh heritage in Harford County and nearby Delta, Pa., and the ways in which the traditions of that heritage are being kept alive. We will have an exhibit in Spring 2013, which draws on that research," Allen wrote in her e-mail.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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