When Thoroughbred Racing Communications, an industry newsletter, released its list of the nation's top 10 horses Monday, three Maryland-breds -- Cigar, Awad and Concern -- were listed first, seventh and 10th, respectively.
Today, the $500,000 Woodward Stakes, part of Belmont Park's "Super Saturday" Breeders' Cup preview card, figures to be a cakewalk for Cigar, winner of nine consecutive races.
And another Maryland-bred, Warning Glance, tries to prove in the $400,000 Man o'War Stakes that he belongs in Grade I company after demolishing local competition this summer on the grass courses at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park. A good effort means he could face Arlington Million winner Awad next month in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf.
It has been quite a year -- perhaps the best -- for horses foaled and, in most cases, reared in Maryland.
But their success flies in the face of a common perception around Maryland's racetracks that the industry is in decline.
Track operator Joe De Francis has said that he wants to apply for fewer summer racing dates next year and fans are betting more on televised races that are broadcast from out-of-state tracks than on the live cards at Pimlico/Laurel. Overall gross betting receipts are up, but less money is being wagered on the local product.
The message that breeders of such animals as Cigar, Awad and Concern could get from these developments is that if there is less demand for their horses, why breed them?
But a quick survey yesterday of some of the people connected with these horses showed some surprising results.
They are cautiously optimistic, if not, in some cases, downright bullish, about the future of the state's thoroughbred industry.
"Business has never been better, both at Northview and for my own personal breeding business," said Richard Golden, one of the partners in Cecil County's Northview Stallion Station, where approximately 500 mares were bred this past spring to the farm's seven stallions, and proprietor of his own commercial breeding operation, Sycamore Hall.
Northview stood the deceased Caveat, sire of Awad and Warning Glance, but has found a worthy replacement to the state's former No. 1 stallion. He is Polish Numbers, who ranks second to Farma Way among America's freshman sires.
"I think the industry is showing tremendous stability, and the breeding business is healthy. Our success is based on purse structures and to me [the upswing at yearling auctions and demand for stallion services] indicates purses are headed in the right direction," Golden said.
Golden added that he thinks De Francis has the right formula. "Cutting down days and adding money to purses is exactly what needs to be done," Golden said. "Who ever said abundance does anything to make the market better? Quality is what brings the people out. I'm looking forward to the Maryland yearling sale [at Timonium next month]. I'll be surprised if it's not the best ever. There are 13 Polish Numbers yearlings in there, as well as offspring of other solid Maryland sires."
Josh Pons, newly elected president of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association, and partner with other family members in Country Life Farm in Bel Air, where Cigar was born, said the atmosphere was "electric" for Marylanders selling horses at the Kentucky sales this week.
"In a few minutes the Benders [Howard and Sondra Bender of Glade Valley Farm near Frederick] sold over $500,000 worth of horses and Alan Kline [of Montgomery County] had the sales-topping filly in one session. You'd never know there were any problems in the industry."
He added that cutbacks in dates at Pimlico/Laurel won't affect Maryland breeders because "there's enough of a local circuit around us" -- with nearby tracks like Delaware Park undergoing a renaissance -- "that people will have places to run their horses."
Timothy Capps, the recently appointed executive director of the MHBA, confirms Pons' feeling. "The Maryland foal crop increased by 70 foals or by 6 or 7 percent in 1994," Capps said. "Remember, horses like Cigar, Awad and Concern were bred in the early '90s when the industry was going through the 'valley of the shadow' and things were at their worst. But people still prevailed and bred good horses."
Capps believes live racing will be bolstered in the next couple of years at the Maryland tracks. "Remember, there is a tendency for the track to sort of trail the breeding industry. The deck they are dealing with now [in filling races at Pimlico/Laurel] comes from the foal crops of '92-93, when numbers were at the bottom. They're seeing the worst."
Pons said that he is concerned that as the live handle decreases at Pimlico/Laurel, so does the percentage of money being channeled into the Maryland breeding fund.
"That's the fear among breeders," Capps said. "They realize the importance of simulcasting, but that there can be too much reliance on it by the tracks. That's where schisms between horsemen and track management develop -- when the focus and marketing initiatives are shifted away from live racing."