Boniface family deals with death, looks ahead for Maryland Million Day

The Boniface family of Bonita Farm in Darlington has been through a lot this year.

Benjamin Boniface, 20, died when he lost control of his pickup truck on the private farm lane early one morning in June after "he failed to negotiate a curve," according to the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

And Deputed Testamony, their home-bred who was the oldest living Triple Crown race winner and the last Maryland-bred horse to win the Preakness, passed away at age 32 in September.

But the Boniface family, like their horses, is made of hardy stock. As Saturday's Jim McKay Maryland Million Day at Laurel Park approaches, the family is still coping with Benjamin's death. But, at the same time, the Bonifaces are focusing on the future and rebirth in the breeding and racing industries.

"It's what we're trying to do every day," said Billy Boniface, 48, who runs the breeding operation, while his siblings — John William Jr., Kevin and Kim — concentrate on training, and their father, John William, also known as Billy, focuses on racing and the farm's new grape-growing business.

Kim Boniface has a filly, Moral High Ground, entered in the Maryland Million Ladies race, while Kevin Boniface considered sending a 2-year-old, Outhaul, for the Maryland Million Nursery.

"She's won her last four races," Kim Boniface said about Moral High Ground.

But Moral High Ground is expected to go to Laurel without any of the Bonifaces — Kevin Boniface's daughter, Michelle, is getting married that day on a hillside in the pasture.

"If we have something running that day, we just won't be there," the younger Billy Boniface said recently. "Family comes first. It's a wedding, something we hope will only happen once in Michelle's lifetime."

It's a fitting reason to miss the Maryland Million celebration, because the day of racing is all about family — Maryland's horse breeding family. It honors Maryland stallions through their offspring and the breeders who make it happen.

"The Maryland Million is our day in Maryland," the younger Billy Boniface said. "[The local breeding farms], the Ponses [Country Life Farm] and the Murrays [Murmur Farm], us, we kid each other about who's going to win and we kind of gang up on Northview [Stallion Station] in Cecil County."

Maryland racing looking up

The Boniface family sees growth in Maryland's breeding industry for the first time in years.

Bonuses for breeders are improving with the influx of slots money, and horse owners are more willing to breed to Maryland-based stallions.

"This year we bred more mares than we did in 2011," said the older Billy Boniface, who originally worked with the late Jim McKay to create the Maryland Million. "This is the first time that's happened since 2001."

It is a reflection of what is happening around the state.

Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, said the state still needs more stallions, but three new ones have taken up residence in Maryland this year — Etched at Bonita, Friesan Fire at Merryland in Bel Air and Admiral Alex at Shamrock Farm in Woodbine.

Breeders and owners of Maryland-bred horses have seen an increase in bonuses from the Maryland Bred Fund Program from 15.5 percent to 17.5 percent for those who win maiden, allowance or $20,000 claiming races. It can mean up to an extra $17,788.50 in winnings on a race.

"The breeding numbers have gone up," Goodall said. "Foals born this year would be the lowest and we should see increased numbers next spring."

At Bonita, Etched is a welcomed addition. The 6-year-old son of Forestry, who sired 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford, is out of Unbridled Elaine, a multiple graded stakes winner, including the 2001 Breeders' Cup Grade I Distaff.

"We love his pedigree," the younger Billy Boniface said of the horse who covered 35 mares last spring. "He doesn't have any turf in his pedigree, and we were looking for a horse to breed to our mares, who have a lot of turf. We needed to find a dirt background since 85 percent of races are on dirt."

Bonita and Darley, a Kentucky breeding farm, share revenues and expenditures, and the breeding operation went well enough this year that Etched will stay for at least another year.

"We have high hopes for him," the younger Billy Boniface said. "We'll see his first babies in the spring."

Family still recovering

When you drive on the private blacktopped road into Bonita Farm, surrounded by 235 acres of undulating pastures, grapevines are the first thing you see.

Maryland's horse industry is improving, and the Boniface family has gotten past the hard times, learning new things in the process. They've branched out, growing much of the hay their horses eat, as well as the grapes that greet you as you enter the property.

Their first grape crop came in 2009. This is the second year they've produced Chateau Bonita, a merlot that won a gold medal at this year's Maryland Governor's Cup Competition, the biggest event for winegrowers in the state.

"It gives our father something to do to stay out of our way," the younger Billy Boniface said jokingly about the budding vineyard. "Actually, my father really likes wine and like with everything he does, he educates himself and pays great attention to detail."

The growing vineyard is one of the activities John William, 70, uses to distract himself from the loss of his grandson, Benjamin. The 2010 John Carroll graduate was driving a 1994 Ford pickup when he crashed on the farm in the early morning hours of June 18. After he was found by a night watchman, according to the sheriff's office, Benjamin was pronounced dead at the scene shortly before 5 a.m.

The Boniface family said they have been strengthened by the outpouring of support they've received and by the many wonderful stories people have told them, revealing Benjamin's character.

"It's so wonderful to hear the nice things people say about him," the younger Billy Boniface, his father, said. "At the viewing, a young man who graduated with Ben from John Carroll, came up to me and said, 'You don't know me, but one of the things you may not know about Ben is that I had a tough time in school. I wasn't a cool kid, but Ben always treated me with kindness and went out of his way to make me feel included.' It was a wonderful thing to hear."

Death of Deputed Testamony

When Deputed Testamony died Sept. 18 — exactly three months after Benjamin's death — it was, in the Bonifaces' minds, another death in the family.

"I told people all week long when they asked, 'Why are you so upset about the horse?' that we never considered him a horse," the younger Billy Boniface said. "We considered him family. He was born May 7, on my 16th birthday. He'd been my responsibility and until the last weekend, he had no ailments, no surgeries.

"He was just as spry coming in at 32 as he was at half that age. But then, [recently], he got a little respiratory thing that knocked him back, and you could see his hind-end was getting weaker. He was walking slower. Finally, his heart gave out."

They have one broodmare daughter left that was sired by Deputed Testamony. Boniface smiles, remembering she, oddly, was also born on May 7.

"She's bred to Etched," he said. "I hope we get a colt — but we'll be happy with whatever we get."

It's life on the farm — a comforting, devoted routine that stretches through the seasons.

"When you are busy, you have to think about your work," the older Billy Boniface said. "And having so much to do here does help and having our family all around, one consoling the other helps.

"But I don't know that life will ever be the same."

Jim McKay Maryland Million Day 2012

When: Saturday

Post time: 12:35 p.m.

Where: Laurel Park

What: 11 races for Maryland-sired horses

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