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Owners of major Harford horse farm explore possible sale

Owners of major Harford horse farm explore possible sale
Bonita Farm in Darlington, Harford's largest thoroughbred horse breeding and training farm owned by the Boniface family, has been put up from sale. (Aegis photo by Matt Button, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Bonita Farm - which a Preakness winner helped make Harford County's largest Thoroughbred horse breeding and training center - has been put up for sale.

The asking price for the farm, which is off of Harmony Church Road in Darlington, is $12 million, according to an online listing by Brandywine Fine Properties/Sotheby's International Realty of Kennett Square, Pa.

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The farm is owned by a general partnership consisting of members of the J. William Boniface family, which established its existing operation in 1984, a year after their colt, Deputed Testamony, scored an upset victory in the 1983 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

Boniface said Tuesday the family is mainly "testing the waters" in hopes of possibly attracting some "deep pockets" foreign investment. He said he has kept the marketing low-key and doubts the farm will be sold outright.

"It's a big number," he said of the asking price.

"I think the future looks bright" for Maryland racing and breeding, he said. "I'd like to bring some new foreign money in, generate some interest from people with deep pockets, use the capital to bring in a top-flight stallion."

Boniface noted that foreign investors have been attracted to Kentucky, center of the United States Thoroughbred breeding industry, where some large farms recently were sold all or in part, with their former owners remaining in charge of their operation.

According to the listing for Bonita Farm, the sale includes 350 acres and six houses on the property, one of them a historic structure that predates the farm's current ownership. The property has several horse barns, a 5/8 mile dirt training track, a 1/2 mile turf course, steeplechase jumps, an indoor track and a turf course circling the entire farm.

In addition to horse breeding, foaling, stabling and training, the farm has a commercial vineyard and, in recent years, has also operated as a wedding venue.

Amber Krause, a Realtor with Brandywine Fine Properties, confirmed that the land and all the buildings and facilities are being offered as a package and the property has been advertised for the international market. She said she could not discuss further any details of the listing, referring questions to her client.

The farm is home to two stallions, Mojave Moon and Etched, the latter whose first runners will begin racing later this year as 2-year-olds. Boniface, who trained horses for more than 40 years before retiring about nine years ago, said he is optimistic the Etched foals are going to be good on the track.

"We broke eight of them here," he said. "They all have good bone and good minds."

In addition to his home, Boniface said three of the homes on the farm belong to his sons - John, William and Kevin. Boniface and his wife, Joan, also have two daughters, neither who lives on the farm. Two other dwellings on the property are tenant houses.

Kevin Boniface succeeded his father as the farm's head trainer. John Boniface also works on the farm.

William "Billy" Boniface, who was the farm's stallion manager, was president of the Harford County Council from late 2006 until December, when he became Harford County director of administration under new Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. He directed all questions about the farm to his father.

Bonita Farm was established in 1963 by the late William and Mary Louise Boniface, J. William Boniface's parents, on a property off of Route 543 in the Creswell area southeast of Bel Air. That farm, expanded to 200 acres in the intervening years, was known for producing and training excellent racing stock that primarily raced in Maryland, but was capable of winning on tracks anywhere in the country.

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Deputed Testamony was born on the farm in 1980 and raced in the Bonita Farm colors. He was trained by J. William Boniface and co-owned by his father and Francis Sears of Boston. After winning the 1983 Preakness, Deputed Testamony continued to race until an injury, suffered in a track record, winning performance at Pimlico on Preakness Day 1994, ended his racing career.

After Deputed Testamony won the Preakness, his impending syndication as a potentially valuable stallion prompted the Boniface family to expand its operation by buying two adjacent Darlington properties, totaling 296 acres, with the intention of becoming a major regional breeding and training center.

The 1984 acquisition of the properties, syndication of Deputed Testamony for breeding and construction of the barns and training track was financed through a $10 million, below market interest rate industrial revenue bond floated through Harford County government. The loan has been repaid in full. J. William Boniface noted the training track alone cost about $1 million to build.

The main stallion at the new Bonita Farm for more than 20 years, Deputed Testamony was a successful sire of winning racehorses. He died in 2012 and is buried at the farm along with his parents, Traffic Cop and Proof Requested.

Bonita Farm was also home to 1994 Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin from 2004 until his retirement from stud duty in 2011. Like Deputed Testamony, Go For Gin had a decent career as a stallion in the Mid-Atlantic area.

In 1987, 392 acres of Bonita Farm were placed into state's agricultural and woodlands preservation program. The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation paid $400 an acre - $155,556, for the preservation easement, according to the deed of easement.

Such purchases, which are supposed to be perpetual, place strict limits on future non-agricultural uses, including housing development. There are, however, provisions for subdividing the land for agricultural purposes, "under extraordinary circumstances," according to Foundation spokesperson Julie Oberg, who noted the program was in its infancy when Bonita's owner joined.

According to state tax records, Bonita Farm is assessed for property tax purposes at $1,375,800, representing valuations of $344,400 for the land and $1,031,400 for the improvements, effective July 1. The property, which has agricultural zoning, was reassessed last year.

Economic problems unsettled the Maryland Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry for most of the decade of the 2000s, as Maryland lagged behind other states like Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that approved casino gambling and dedicated part of the revenue from it to racing purses and breeding incentive programs. Many stallions left the state as a result, and many broodmare owners wouldn't breed in Maryland because of better financial incentives elsewhere.

Both J. William and Billy Boniface were active in the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and in its successful efforts to obtain a portion of slot machine gambling revenue for racing purses, breeder awards and race track improvements, when Maryland finally approved casino gambling in 2008. Both have said in past interviews that the industry's economic situation has improved markedly since the first casino opened in 2010 and revenue has flowed into racing purses and bonuses paid to breeders of winning horses born in Maryland.

The online sales advertisement for Bonita notes that the property is: "Positioned perfectly to for racing at MD, NJ, NY, WV and DE tracks. Come take advantage of the 30 percent Maryland Thoroughbred Racing Breeders Bonus!"

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"We had some lean years," J. William Boniface said, "but I believe pound for pound Maryland has the best [breeder/stallion bonus] programs. The number of foals is up. It's a good time for new investment. The time is right to bring into this state a stallion with a $45,000 stud fee."

As he talked to a reporter via his cell phone, Boniface said he was mucking out stalls with his sons.

"I don't see us going anywhere real quick," he said.

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