South Korean horse farm owners tour Harford County horse farms. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
John William Boniface Sr. bent down and ran his fingers through the grass at his Bonita Farm in Harford County.
“Maryland has as good a grass as Kentucky,” he told a group of visitors from South Korea.
Boniface boasted that Maryland held its first thoroughbred horse race in 1721, back when Kentucky was still open prairie.
“Maryland is the place to buy and breed horses,” he said. “When they tell you all that you’ve got to be in Kentucky, that’s [nonsense].”
Boniface is one of a group of Maryland horse industry boosters who’ve spent the week wooing the South Korean horse farm owners and breeders. They’ve been trying to convince the South Koreans to buy Maryland horses — and to build lasting relationships with Maryland’s equestrian industry.
That mission, highlighted by Wednesday’s tour of horse farms in Harford County, is part of a larger effort by Maryland officials to bolster economic ties with South Korea. To promote the initiative, they have drawn on the help of Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan, the South Korean-born wife of Gov. Larry Hogan.
It was during a trade mission in September with other Maryland officials that Yumi Hogan convinced South Korea horse owners to come to Maryland to explore the state’s racing industry.
She also promoted other Maryland businesses — wearing clothes from Baltimore’s Under Armour, staying at a hotel owned by Bethesda-based Marriott International and delivering Old Bay seasoning from Sparks-based McCormick & Co. to troops who guard the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone with North Korea. She met with South Korea’s first lady, the prime minister and the speaker of the National Assembly.
Hogan, a native of Naju, South Korea, has become a valued asset in the governor’s efforts to expand international opportunities for state companies and to attract foreign firms and investors to create jobs here.
“She is the first Korean first lady in the nation’s history,” said Benjamin Wu, the state’s deputy secretary of commerce, who was part of the delegation to South Korea in September. “So she carries a lot of celebrity status, especially in Korea.”
The Hogans and other officials also made a trip to South Korea in 2015. The itinerary included talks with Asiana Airlines about flights to Maryland and events to promote a relationship between the University of Maryland and the carmaker Hyundai.
Maryland could use the help. State exports declined from a record high of $12.2 billion in 2014, the year before Gov. Hogan took office, to $9.7 billion in 2016, state and federal figures show. Neighboring states suffered similar but smaller declines as part of a national slowdown in exports in 2015 and 2016, according to the Brookings Institution.
State officials consider South Korea an ideal trade partner for Maryland, in part because the country has an export-heavy economy and robust government support for firms attempting international trade.
Seventeen people from South Korean are spending the week in Maryland. On Tuesday, they attended the Fasig-Tipton horse sale at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, and bought eight mares.
They spent Wednesday visiting thoroughbred farms in Harford County. More farm tours are scheduled in Howard and Carroll counties on Thursday. Most of the funding for the trip came from U.S. Livestock Genetics Export, a trade association.
South Korea is an expanding market for thoroughbred horses, and Maryland wants to take part, said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
“The Korean market has grown,” Goodall said. “The racing industry has improved and gotten better.”
Jae-Hyong Yoo, president of a South Korean company that helps broker horse sales, said his country’s thoroughbred racing industry is indeed growing. Breeders look to buy horses from America, Australia and England.
“We import 400 to 500 racing horses to Korea,” he said.
The country has racetracks in the capital of Seoul, the port city of Busan and on the island of Jeju. Some of the visitors to Maryland were breeders from Jeju, Yoo said.
He said Maryland horses are recognized as good for middle-distance thoroughbred racing.
South Korean breeders have visited Maryland to attend a horse sale in conjunction with the Preakness Stakes. But they had never before been to the winter sale, which included a mix of brood mares, weanling horses that were born earlier this year and some racing-age horses.
At Bonita Farm in Darlington, workers walked three new stud horses into the sunshine while Boniface extolled their virtues. The guests snapped cellphone pictures and took notes. They marveled at Dortmund, a tall and broad stallion with a striking chestnut coat and a record of nearly $2 million in winnings.
They also toured Murmur Farm, where owner Audrey Murray showed off stallions available for stud and the barn where breeding takes place. Her stallions include Petionville, a 25-year-old that bred with 25 mares last year, and Blofeld, a 5-year-old horse named for a James Bond villain that just retired from racing.
Murmur Farm has sold about 25 horses to South Korean buyers over the years. Murray said she has some reservations about selling to overseas buyers — mainly because Maryland offers bonuses to breeders when their horses’ offspring win races in Maryland.
Plus, Murray said, she likes keeping some horses to race.
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“We like to race,” she said. “It’s much more exciting.”
Boniface, likewise, said the incentives for Maryland breeders keep him focused primarily on Maryland buyers.
“If it’s for the same price, I’d rather sell to Maryland,” Boniface said.
Nevertheless, he’s sold about a half-dozen horses to Korean owners, plus a few others to buyers in England, Brazil and Chile.
Connelly said this week’s sale of mares — who will be used to breed future generations of horses — bode well for Maryland’s presence in South Korea, and will help the state make a mark in that country.