Bel Air's Country Life Farm shoots for another 'Moon'

Gambling on horses isn't only confined to the mutuel windows at the race track or to a TwinSpires or TVG online account.

Before any thoroughbred even stands in its birthing stall, considerable study and financial investment will have gone into the mating that produced it, and that might be the biggest gamble of all.

Breeding the stock that will one day race on the track and then replenish itself in the breeding shed is the lifeblood of the thoroughbred industry that is trying to revive itself in Maryland after a decade of acute economic hard knocks.

The success of any breeding program starts with the stallion and therein lies the rub, for no matter how good he might have been on the race track, no matter how supposedly regal his own bloodlines, like a hot stock or mutual fund, neither pedigree nor past performance is any guarantee of future success as a progenitor.

"That's our game," said Ken Wilkins, stallion manager for Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky., one of the top breeding farms in Bluegrass Country. "No one knows where the next great one's coming from."

Wilkins was among the estimated 200 people who visited Country Life Farm just south of Bel Air Saturday afternoon, as owners Josh and Mike Pons and other members of the extended family showed off three young stallions they hope could be among the coming great ones.

Earlier in the day, Friesan Fire, who entered stud duty in 2012; Cal Nation, who began breeding last year; and Freedom Child, who will cover his first mares in about a week, were moved from the Pons Brothers' Merryland Farm in Baltimore County to their new home in Country Life's refurbished stallion barn.

Revived hopes

This year's breeding season, which begins in the middle of February, will be the first at Country Life Farm in several years and, if it represents a revival of sorts for the farm, it also signals an upswing for Maryland's thoroughbred horse industry.

The Pons brothers say they hope each of their young stallions will cover at least 50 mares over the next six weeks, possibly more, which is one reason why they invited both current and prospective clients to take a look at them Saturday.

"We had a pretty good mix today," Mike Pons said. "There were some old clients, and some people with whom we've owned pieces of horses in recent years and some new folks we hope will join us."

As each stallion was walked along the row in front of their spacious, rebuilt stalls for a handful of latecomers, there was a positive vibe. The three horses were alert and interested in those looking at them, and they looked beautiful.

Among those in the late arriving group was Dr. Tom Bowman, one of the state's most successful breeders. Bowman is a partner in Heritage Stallions, a new breeding farm that opened earlier this year near Chesapeake City and will stand 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and five other stallions. Bowman was also instrumental in establishing both the Maryland and Pennsylvania divisions of Northview Stallion Station, whose roster includes Not for Love, among the Middle Atlantic region's top sires in terms money won by offspring.

In the 1990s, Country Life was home to two of the Middle Atlantic region's hottest stallions, Allen's Prospect and Carnivalay. Hundreds of mares were bred to them each winter and early spring and many of the mares stayed behind to give birth and be bred again, while nursing their newborns in the farm's meadows along Route 1.

When the two stallions grew old and passed on, one of their replacements was an up-and-comer named Malibu Moon, whose first crop of foals had immediate success on the race track and turned heads of breeders around the world.

Malibu Moon achieved his initial success as a stallion, however, at a time when Maryland's entire horse industry from farm to track was in economic free fall, after Delaware and then West Virginia and Pennsylvania approved slots gambling and dedicated significant amounts of the revenue from the slots to racing purses and breeding incentive programs.

With no slots revenue or similar enhancements to compete, Maryland breeders like the Pons brothers watched as the owners of even modestly bred broodmares sent their horses to other states to give birth. Soon, the top quality stallions followed. After standing four years at Country Life, Malibu Moon went to Spendthrift Farm, and even more moderately successful stallions that had stood at Country Life, such as Parker's Storm Cat and Oratory, ended up elsewhere, in Washington State and Texas, respectively.

"I like to joke that both got good after I sent them out of town," said Mike Pons of the latter two, who sired multiple stakes winners, though not as good as Malibu Moon, whose already brilliant stud career jumped to another level last May, when his son, Orb, won the Kentucky Derby.

Turning tide

But the tide has begun to turn, said Josh Pons, who is president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

With slots pumping $3 million a month into purses and breeders bonuses, Pons said, it is "much more attractive" to breed in Maryland.

The enhanced breeding fund – which pays bonuses to breeders if the horse finishes first, second or third in a race – is also a way for an operation like Country Life to attract new clients, he added.

"You can breed and then sit back a clip the coupons and let someone else take all the risk" in training and racing the horse, he said.

While Josh Pons called Friesan Fire the "alpha male" among the farm's young stallions, much of the focus of Saturday's event was on Freedom Child, a runaway winner of the Peter Pan Stakes last spring at Belmont Park in New York, and a half-brother to Orb, who is entering stud this season at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.

The Pons brothers retain a 25 percent interest in Malibu Moon, whose majority owner is Spendthrift Farm, and hope to build on his success with Freedom Child in their stallion barn.

"Malibu Moon has been successful as a sire of winners and of broodmares and the next step is to be a sire of champion sires," Spendthrift's Wilkins said. He said interest in breeding to Orb has been strong and, in addition to Freedom Child, two other Malibu Moon sons are standing in Florida.

Wilkins said interest in breeding Malibu Moon remains "very strong," even as his stud fee was raised to $95,000 this year from $70,000.

'Moon's' shots

In addition to Orb's 2013 Derby win, one of Malibu Moon's daughters, Ask the Moon, a Grade I stakes winner, was sold in foal to War Front for $1.8 million at the Keeneland (Ky.) November sale of breeding stock.

The 9-year-old broodmare was bred in Maryland by Thornmar Farms in Chestertown and Country Life Farm, but Thornmar sold her as a yearling for $45,000, she was sold again as a 2-year-old, was claimed during her racing career for $75,000 by Farnsworth Stables and won the Ruffian Invitational and Personal Ensign stakes back-to-back at Saratoga in 2001, her final year of racing.

"Even if we didn't get any [of the $1.8 million] It's still nice to be associated with her," Mike Pons said of Ask the Moon, explaining that Thornmar, owned by Cynthia and Charles McGinnis, is a longtime client and had bred mares to Malibu Moon when he was still standing at Country Life.

Added together, the stud fees of Country Life's three young stallions don't equal a quarter of Malibu Moon's fee for a single mating.

Friesan Fire, a son of A.P. Indy (who is also Malibu Moon's father) and the betting favorite in the 2009 Kentucky Derby who was injured during the race, stands for $4,000. Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm, notable as the owner of 2011 American Thoroughbred Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, is a partner in Friesan Fire.

Both Cal Nation, a son of Distorted Humor who sired 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, and Freedom Child stand for $3,500. Those who breed mares to Freedom Child can participate in a Spendthrift Farm incentive program called Share the Upside, which allows additional lifetime breeding rights in the stallion under the presumption his stud fees will increase if he's successful as a sire. For comparison, Not for Love commands a state high $15,000 stud fee; no other stallion standing in Maryland this year has a fee even half as much.

Of course, once upon a time it only cost few thousand bucks to breed to Malibu Moon. And part of the Country Life lore is the discounted $400 stud fee the late Jack Price paid to Josh and Mike Pons' late father, Joe, to breed his $265 mare Joppy to Country Life's stallion Saggy, the product of which was the Derby and Preakness champion and Hall of Fame colt Carry Back.

Dreams have to start somewhere. The gamble has to be taken to pay off. Why not in Maryland, in Bel Air at Country Life Farm, the Pons brothers ask? After all, it's happened there before – many times.

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