Dreams of a thoroughbred stallion operation that evoked the state's racing glory days were dealt a setback when the Maryland Stallion Station left its north Baltimore County home and relocated its horses to survive the tough economy.
However, Stallion Station president Don Litz is hopeful that by scaling back some of the expenses of the stud operation, the business can thrive while also giving a boost to the two farms where the stallions now stand. Four of the horses were moved to Bonita Farm in Harford County at the end of last year, and three others are at Shamrock Farm in Carroll County.
"I'm very grateful for their support," Litz said of the new homes for the horses. A three-decade horse industry veteran, Litz runs the stallion operation for about two dozen investors with some of the horses majority-owned by the group and a few others managed for other owners. Stud fees for the seven stallions range from $2,500 to $6,500.
When the Stallion Station - a five-year-old venture promoting some of the state's most productive and promising sires - was at its former site in Glyndon, it was within a short gallop of legendary Sagamore Farm, the former Alfred Vanderbilt spread now owned by Under Armour chief executive officer Kevin Plank. Sagamore had been home to Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Native Dancer.
"At the time, I felt we may be able to promote our business associating it with the atmosphere of Sagamore Farm and Native Dancer," Litz said. "I felt that had real cachet to it - maybe I was being a romantic."
It's hardly a secret that horse racing has struggled as other forms of gambling have been legalized in more states over the past 30 years, and Maryland horse interests have suffered as surrounding states introduced slots casinos with those revenues going to fatten track purses.
From 1993 to 2007, the number of stallions standing in Maryland dropped from 160 to 63. Not surprisingly, foals sired by Maryland stallions also declined over the same period, from 1,532 to 996.
As economic circumstances became more difficult for the Stallion Station, Litz - who had built a state-of-the-art barn and breeding shed to mirror the world-famous Lane's End breeding farm in Lexington, Ky. - attempted to negotiate new lease arrangements with the landowner. When that failed, Litz went looking late last year for farms to house his horses.
Terry Finley, who runs West Point Thoroughbreds, a business that buys racehorses at auction and puts together owner partnerships, says Litz, and the Maryland horse industry in general, face huge challenges from nearby states because racing people "are going to follow the money."
"And the money left Maryland and went to other places," said Finley, who has a 3-year-old colt training in Florida that was sired by one of the Stallion Station's horses, Rock Slide.
The Stallion Station horses standing at Bonita are the No. 2 sire in the state for the past two years, Outflanker, along with Fantasticat, Gators N Bears and St Averil. The three stallions at Shamrock are Rock Slide, Cherokee's Boy and Orioles owner Peter Angelos' Greek Sun. A fourth horse that had made the move, Seeking Daylight, died in February.
The farm operators are happy to have the business and glad that the stallion operation didn't bolt to another state, such as Pennsylvania, where in-state breeder racing purses sweetened by slots revenues can make breeding horses a more lucrative proposition. Litz said some of his investors urged him to move elsewhere, but he wanted to stay in Maryland, with its superior infrastructure for breeding and raising thoroughbreds.
"What I'm happy about was that having these horses come here to Harford County seemed to create some optimism among the horse people up here where there has been nothing but pessimism," said J. William Boniface, the oldest of three generations at the family-run horse farm. "It's certainly a shorter van ride to the breeding shed for local folks. Plus, these are good horses. ... Not that I want to profit from someone's financial difficulty, but as for Bonita Farm and Harford County, having these horses has been a bright light."
Jim Steele, who runs Shamrock Farm and is president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, sympathizes with Litz's having to abandon his own facility but is hopeful the new arrangement will be a win-win.
"The fact that the stallions stayed in the state is a positive for the state," Steele said. "And the [stallion] group has a chance to make more money by not having to rent and putting the upkeep of a facility and the labor that goes with that on our shoulders.
"This way, Don doesn't have the day-to-day worry about operating a stallion facility and he can focus on promoting the stallions."
Horse breeding season began in mid-February and runs through July 1, and so far the Stallion Station's seven horses have covered about 50 mares. Outflanker requires the most expensive stud fee among the seven, $6,500. But the key to creating demand for Litz's horses, he concedes, would be outstanding performances by some of the 2-year-olds who were sired by his operation's stallions. Fantasticat, Gators N Bears and St Averil have offspring going to the starting gates this spring.
"We have three shots on goal," Litz said, referring to the three stallions.
To date, Outflanker has been the most productive sire, producing Bayou's Lassie, a Grade III stakes winner, and Kosmo's Buddy, a filly who captured the $100,000 Turf Sprint against all-male competition during last fall's Maryland Million races. Outflanker's colts and fillies have gone on to earn $15 million.
Rock Slide, who stands at Shamrock, was the state's 2008 leading second-crop sire, meaning the second group of foals sired.
However, even with good producers in its portfolio, the Maryland Stallion Station, competing in an already fragile horse industry, is also being buffeted by the effects of a horrible overall economy.
"People are slower this year in making up their minds to have their mares bred, or they're waiting longer for the mares to have their foals," Litz said. "And like any other investment, people are waiting to see if they can get some bargains in lower stud fees."
As for the dream of a stand-alone stallion operation, Litz is glad he at least tried.
"Sometimes," he said, "you throw a Hail Mary pass in life."