Joe Thompson, who owns Winbak Farm in Chesapeake City, can't help but laugh when he talks about the name his wife gave their foal, Roll With Joe, three years ago.
"I think she planned for the horse not to do well, so she could tease and laugh at me about it forever," Thompson said. "But he turned out to be quite a horse."
Roll With Joe was recently named the United States Harness Writers Association Dan Patch Award winner as the 3-year-old pacer of the year. He was also runner-up for Horse of the Year after winning more than $1.6 million in 2011.
Roll With Joe will be among six horses and two people will be honored Tuesday at the Maryland Horse Industry Board's "Night of Maryland Horse Racing Champions" at the Sports Legends Museum.
"Yes, we're on the same card as the Preakness," she said. "It's pretty fantastic."
Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, said he hopes events like Tuesday's help to change the perception of the public about the racing industry in Maryland.
"Public perception is that the Maryland horse industry is dying because the thoroughbred and harness racing and breeding industries in the state are in distress," Peddicord said. "But while that's true of one segment of the horse industry, it's simply not true when the entire industry is examined."
The MHIB funded a census in 2010 which revealed, among other things, that there are 79,100 horses in Maryland worth $714 million and that there are 188,000 acres in the state strictly devoted to horses.
Thompson bought three Maryland horse farms in 1991, including the famed Winfields Farm where the legendary Northern Dancer stood. He combined them into Winbak and now has from 2,800 to 3,000 of those acres. He has turned the farm into one of the most successful and largest standardbred horse operations in North America. It is also the largest single family-owned standardbred farm.
Since 1998, Winbak has bred the winners of 21,398 races and won $205,031,035. It has also been home to three U.S. Horses of the Year, including Classic Wish, who is a Canadian and U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame member and the mother of three millionaires — including Roll With Joe.
When Roll With Joe was about to be sold as a colt at auction, Johnson said the horse jammed his right rear foot through a fence.
"I didn't think he was going to be sellable and the day he was sold to [a New York group], his back leg was still swollen," Thompson said. "I called them the next day and said I would like to take a piece of him, if they didn't mind. They didn't, but they had to change their plans a little. They were about to change his name, but because I was going to be part of the ownership group, they thought it might be bad luck to change it, so they didn't."
Roll With Joe is being honored with the Touch of Class Award for February along with two other horses: Rapid Redux, a thoroughbred, owned by Towson native Robert Cole, won 22 straight races and set a North American Record before being given a vacation that is expected to extend into May or June; and Googoo Gaagaa, a standardbred colt owned, bred and trained by Richard Hans at his Westminster farm, who set a world's record for 2-year-old trotters on a half-mile track at Ocean Downs, covering a mile in 1 minute, 56 seconds. .
The Touch of Class Award for March goes to Bon Caddo, a champion U.S. timber horse who won the My Lady's Manor Steeplechase and the Virginia Gold Cup for owners Charles and Barbara Noell of Merriefield Farm in Monkton; and to Irvin S. Naylor, a champion U.S. steeplechase owner who operates Still Water Farm and Training Center in Baltimore County. His stable led all U.S. Owners, winning 16 races.
The third winner in March is Tom Voss, who runs Atlanta Hall Farm in Monkton. He won his fifth national steeplechasing Trainer of the Year award, with 16 victories. .
The April award will be presented to two Arabian racing champions, U.S. champion 3-year-old Arabian racing filly Golden Odessy and world champion mare Dixies Valentine. Both were bred and raised at Rigbie Farm in Harford County.