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Barn's eye view

HOLDING COURT in a spacious corner of Bonita Farm's most deluxe accommodations, the aging bay stallion greets visitors with a regal reserve that suggests he's well aware of his status in this four-generation family enterprise.

By winning the 1983 Preakness, Deputed Testamony catapulted a small-time horse farm owned by J. William Boniface into a 400-acre, multimillion-dollar, nationally recognized breeding and training facility, and provided careers for a half-dozen other members of the Boniface clan. The 23-year-old patriarch of the stallion barn, frisky after a roll in the grass and morning bath, still meets visiting mares in the breeding shed to bequeath the talent in his genes. Several fields away in Harford County's rolling countryside, Bonita Farm's potential future trots eagerly to the fence at the sight of company. The gangly, chestnut colt with a stylish white blaze is a half-brother of Funny Cide, winner of this year's Preakness and the Kentucky Derby.

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Not yet a year old, little Homicide (Joan Boniface named him after the Baltimore-based TV show) is now worth $500,000. That could go up, if he races well. Or sharply down, if he disappoints. No guarantees.

Horse-breeding is a high risk game, like most everything associated with racing. For Maryland breeders, though, the odds are growing steeper because neighboring states are luring their clients away.

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Besides boosting racing purses, tracks in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia pay premiums on winning horses born in their states. Delaware is expected to add a breeding program to its already rich purses.

Maryland's own pioneering breeding bonus program hasn't kept pace. Increasingly, mares bred to the Bonifaces' four stallions are taken over the state line to foal.

Such departures not only cost Bonita Farm boarding fees but also deny William K. Boniface, one of three sons of J. William and Joan, his favorite part of the job: playing midwife. He's delivered a thousand horses - including Deputed Testamony on his 16th birthday - and is still agog at the process.

Lost business for breeders ripples through Maryland's economy. To hay farmers and feed mills, tack shops and truck makers; veterinarians, blacksmiths, and people who haul away manure.

All told, the economic impact of horse-breeding in Maryland is estimated at $500 million annually, not counting the protection of open space. The six large farms, including Bonita, and many smaller spreads are preserving 200,000 acres of rural Maryland.

The Bonifaces are part of a reluctant lobby for slots, which they see as the only hope for fattening purses and premiums for Maryland-breds. Many hands-on horse folks are frustrated, though, that their industry is often equated with racetrack owners, who engender little sympathy.

Bill Boniface, 39, and his younger brothers, Kevin and John, both trainers, are trying to make their own luck. Grandsons of longtime Evening Sun racing writer Bill Boniface, they know their success depends on drawing more people into the sport.

They're trying to swell the ranks of racehorse owners by making it more affordable. Few can finance the top-dollar steeds, but Bonita will sell a half-interest in a cheaper horse or put together a syndicate, such as the group of buddies that owns Funny Cide.

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Bonita Farms is currently home to a horse owned by three guys from Bethesda, who bring along a gang of 20 to the track. They eat, drink, cheer, bet, make a day of it, and maybe get hooked themselves.

Such painstaking retail promotion probably can't save Maryland's horse industry without state help. But at the house Deputed Testamony built, they at least want everyone to understand what would be lost.


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