Thoroughbred Revival?


Today's Maryland Million at Laurel Race Course celebrates this state's long history of horse racing. But the event is more than celebration. The 120 horses that will gallop around the track illustrate the importance of fostering a home-state thoroughbred industry. After years of decline, there are signs of a gradual revival.

Part of this renewed interest is due to the Maryland Million, the brainchild of the late Frank J. De Francis. All of the lucrative races today are open only to the offspring of Maryland stallions. With an annual pot of gold to shoot for, more breeders are viewing this state as fertile territory.

For proof, look at last weekend's Eastern Fall Yearling Sale at the Timonium Fairgrounds, where for the first time in the history of the sale five yearlings sold for $50,000 or more. That sale followed on the heels of last month's Horsemen's Bloodstock Services' first yearling bidding at Laurel, which proved quite popular, too.

Another encouraging sign was the re-opening in August of famed Sagamore Farm in the Worthington Valley as a combination breeding and training facility. Once the symbol of Maryland's great thoroughbred breeding and training legacy (Native Dancer is buried there), Sagamore had fallen on hard times. After being sold by longtime owner Alfred Vanderbilt to James Ward in 1987, the 400-acre farm limped along until it shut down in 1990.

But now the 90-stall training barn and track have been leased for use as a breaking, rehabilitation and conditioning facility while much of the rest of the farm has been rented as a breeding operation. If Pimlico closes a portion of its grounds this winter, Sagamore's popularity as a stabling facility for local trainers could soar.

Adding to the feeling of optimism are the latest figures from off-track betting operations at Laurel and Pimlico. Based on gross betting receipts, there has been a 38 percent increase in track business. That permits the tracks to offer bigger purses, drawing a larger number of better-quality horses.

This state's $1 billion thoroughbred industry was hit hard by changes in federal tax laws in 1986, which made breeding and owning horses much less profitable. Then the recession multiplied the industry's problems. Only recently did it appear that the industry might have hit bottom.

Thoroughbred racing and Maryland have been closely intertwined since colonial days. It's a tradition. It is also an important state industry. And farms such as Sagamore provide the green vistas and open space that are vital in our increasingly congested metropolitan regions. No wonder so many folks will ++ be cheering for a successful Maryland Million today.

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