The horse industry is the fastest-growing agricultural sector in Harford County, local officials say, but stagnant racing purses threaten its continued viability in the state, some area farmers contend.
Billy Boniface, co-owner of Bonita Farms in Darlington, said business has dropped because of problems with breeders' incentives, the percentage of money in a racing purse that goes back to the farm that bred the racehorse. Those incentives and the purses that owners receive if their horses win are larger in nearby states.
Boniface, 38, is co-owner of Bonita Farms and has been a horse farmer all his life. He handles the breeding division and is responsible for raising 50 to 75 foals each year. His brothers, Kevin and John, handle the training division.
Bonita Farms encompasses 400 acres and a training facility. The farm includes 50 stalls in training barns, 50 stalls in breeding barns and a five-eighths-mile training track.
"If we don't do something soon, they [horse breeders] will go elsewhere," Boniface said. Recently, he said, he has sent foals to Pennsylvania because they have a better chance of financial success there. "There is no incentive for people to come here if the breeders' incentive is decreasing," he said.
Boniface and other horse farmers in the county recently attended a rally in Annapolis supporting slot machines at racetracks in Maryland. He thinks the slots would bring an infusion of money into the horse industry.
Legislation to authorize the slot machines is backed by the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The measure recently was approved by the state Senate but faces hurdles in the House of Delegates.
Mike Pons, 46, business manager of Country Life Farms in Bel Air, said he has lost clients to West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, where horse-breeding money is increasing.
Pons and his brother, Josh Pons, 48, run the thoroughbred breeding farm, which contains more than 100 acres, and a new 160-acre training farm, Merryland Farms, in Hydes.
Both have been around horses most of their lives and have continued the 70-year-old family business.
Country Life Farms has 75 stalls for breeding and five miles of fences around the pasture. Eight miles down the road is Merryland Farms, which has 83 stalls for training, a five-eighths-mile training track, and 12 to 13 miles of fences around the pasture.
To survive in the business, Mike Pons said, he created a niche.
"We have one of the best stallion rosters east of Kentucky," he said. "We've been doing it longer than others, and we have the expertise and experience."
The Pons brothers are commercial breeders whose primary job is to have their stallions impregnate 250 mares and return them to their owners, who sell the foals or train them for the track.
They also train horses at Merryland Farms, where yearlings begin their schooling. Every horse needs a team, including veterinarians, blacksmiths and grooms, to keep it in top shape, Pons said. Pons-bred horses race internationally.
Because thoroughbreds are a big business in the area, "it is very important that our bred money be competitive with other states," Pons said. "For instance, the breeder incentive in Maryland is $4.8 million, Pennsylvania is $10 million, and New York is $15 million, so Maryland is distant third."
For 10 years, Maryland's breeder money has remained unchanged.
The state's thoroughbred industry is suffering because there are bigger incentives for racehorses bred in states that use slot-machine revenue to help their horse industries, said John Sullivan, agriculture coordinator for Harford County. Slots are practical and have been successful in other states, he said.
"Slots are not the only answer, [but] I don't know what the alternative is," said Sullivan, who calls the horse industry the county's fastest-growing agricultural sector.
He noted that the state has subsidized baseball and football while the tracks have been going downhill.
Since its peak in the 1980s, when Deputed Testamony, a racehorse bred at Bonita Farms, won the Preakness, there has been a gradual decline in the area's thoroughbred industry, Sullivan said.
Jay Young of Monkton, president of the Elk Ridge Harford Hunt Club, said the success of the horse industry at all levels is necessary for the enjoyment of all aspects of it.
"If a major part of the industry fails, it would significantly impact all of us," he said. Young, who lives on a farm and is a lawyer at Brown, Brown & Brown in Bel Air, said he wants the horse industry to survive in Harford County because the horse farms are national treasures.
The horse industry is economically integrated. The horses used for fox hunting are retired thoroughbreds, which members purchase from horse farms in the county along with hay, straw and grain, as other farmers do, Young said.
"I want to see the industry continue to grow," he said. "It is something everyone should be able to enjoy."
Although times are tough, Pons said, he will not leave his farm. "We are going to stay here," he said. "We love it here. However, we shouldn't have to suffer."
The stagnation of the purses affects all aspects of the industry, from hay farmers to fox hunters. "We go up, they all go," Pons said.
The financial problems of the county's thoroughbred horse farms are masked because thoroughbred farms are one of three types of horse farms in the county. The others - boarding, training and riding lessons farms; and pleasure horse farms - are thriving.
The pleasure-riding part of the industry is growing in the county, according to the 2002 Maryland Equine Census conducted for the Maryland Horse Industry Board. The census found that Harford ranked fifth in the state with 1,360 equine places, double the number of full-time farms.
"Horse farmers are successful because they take pleasure in their business and are not interested in development, Sullivan said. "You don't see a horse farm lost to development."
They also find a niche and develop their product to the fullest potential to justify staying on the land, Sullivan said. Many farmers have joined the agriculture-preservation program in the county to protect their land from developers.
"Maryland has done a really good job preserving the land; now it needs to preserve the farmer," Pons said.
While the thoroughbred farmers struggle, the pleasure-horse side of the industry has been growing because the rising county population has disposable income to spend on this recreational activity.
Ami Howard, 65, longtime manager of Olney Farms in Joppa, said there has been a tremendous increase in riding and boarding. "It is more competitive than ever," she said. She added that she is not worried about the economics of her horse farm. "There will always be a place for a business like mine," she said.
Howard's 200-acre farm has two barns and outbuildings for the horses and storage. One barn contains 22 stalls. The other has 10 stalls and is connected to an indoor area where lessons, training and competitions are held.
It is primarily a boarding and lesson facility, but she breeds a few sport horses as a hobby. She said she is proud of her farm as a family business. "We like to encourage a family atmosphere," she said.
Although the county's thoroughbred breeders are facing difficult times, they seem determined to stay in the business.
"We are a farm for all seasons," Boniface said, referring to the breeding and training programs. Bonita Farms takes it a step further than other thoroughbred farms do because horses are able to race at the farm after training.
"By having a facility our size, it gives us the opportunity to go where the market is the strongest," Boniface said. "We will be persevere and continue to work hard."