Bob Manfuso walked through one of the stables at his 195-acre Howard County farm like a proud papa — or, more accurately, a doting grandpa — as he watched his newest foal, a bay colt born the previous night, bond in a stall with his mother.
The 78-year-old Manfuso can’t say whether this latest addition will race one day in the Kentucky Derby or whether one of the young fillies frolicking in a nearby field will win the Kentucky Oaks, as Manfuso’s Cathryn Sophia did earlier this month.
“Who knows, my friend, you hope so,” Manfuso, who followed his late father, John Manfuso Sr., into the breeding business, said last week. “There are horses that will make you a believer. These things evolve. They all tend to develop at different rates.”
Manfuso and longtime partner Katy Voss, a well-respected trainer with deep racing roots in Baltimore County, run Chanceland Farm, where Cathryn Sophia was raised.
The dream of raising a Maryland-bred stakes winner is much more realistic than it was a few years ago for Manfuso, who, along with Voss, opened the farm in 1988 to breed and rehabilitate injured older horses.
An infusion of money has led one longtime Maryland horseman to declare a “renaissance” to the state’s racing industry that not long ago seemed on the verge of extinction.
A $20-million renovation of Laurel and Pimlico race tracks is proposed, and earlier this year legislation passed that pledged $500,000 a year to revive the D.C. International and a $500,000 bonus for Maryland-bred horses winning the Preakness.
Breeding is at the core of this revival.
Despite Maryland’s long history of breeding quality horses, only 369 foals were produced statewide in 2012. Cricket Goodall, the executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, figures that’s the lowest crop since Maryland began breeding.
By 2014, the number of foals had increased to 522. The Maryland Jockey Club won’t release the number for last year’s foal crop until the horses are registered with the state, but Goodall believes the number will be “closer to mid-600s”.
It is higher than the national average.
And these horses have potential, too.
“There are some wonderful things going on now,” Mike Pons said. “I hadn’t seen these things going on in my lifetime.”
Pons, who was born into the business and is the third-generation co-owner of Country Life Farm in Harford County, said Cathryn Sophia’s victory on May 6 at Churchill Downs resonated throughout the country in terms of educating racing fans and, more importantly, horse owners about the state’s potential for breeding.
With additional subsidy for the racing purses and breeding operations expected to come from the opening of a casino at the National Harbor in Prince George's County, Pons believes breeders nationwide will flock to Maryland.
Pons said the excitement in Maryland racing was palpable in Kentucky after Cathryn Sophia’s victory.
It reminds him of what happened in the early 1960s, when the creation of the Maryland Fund led to Kauai King winning both the 1966 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. After that, Pons said, “people sent their mares up here to foal and breed back and that’s happening now again with the slot subsidy that’s coming.”
The quality of trainers and horses coming to Maryland is on the rise, Pons said.
“Just the maiden allowance races at Laurel, the horses that used to win these races can’t,” Pons said. “You’ve got to bring you’re ‘A’ game and it’s causing all of us to breed the best of the best. It’s sort of Darwinian, but it makes us all step up and bring the better mares and breed with the better stallions.”
Since Cathryn Sophia was purchased for only $30,000 in a fall sale at a Timonium auction, her victory in Louisville “will remind everyone that pretty good horses come out of that sale,” Pons said.
Goodall said the impact will be felt immediately, when the sale of 2-year-olds is conducted next Monday and Tuesday.
“It will help spur buying Maryland breds,” Goodall said. “It will give them a boost, people will look a little more closely and they might spend a little more money. I’m not saying a Maryland-bred is going to bring a million dollars. One that may have brought 50 [thousand] might bring 80 [thousand].”
Goodall said that Cathryn Sophia’s victory is validation from what she and others told the legislators who unanimously passed the recent bill – still awaiting the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan to become a law.
“It’s hard for them [legislators] to see that response in an industry like this.” Goodall said. “It takes four or five years to grow a horse. All the time we had been saying, ‘Just give us time and give us the resources and we’ll come back’ [as an industry] and this sort of validates that.”
The confidence in breeding horses in Maryland had wavered, even for Manfuso, who took some of his mares to New York and Kentucky. Now, he’s focused on staying in Maryland, where he has 14 foals on his farm.
Cathryn Sophia’s win at Churchill Downs, her fifth in six starts, only fuels the exposure for Maryland breeding and Chanceland Farm.
Goodall expects Cathryn Sophia won’t be the last Maryland-bred horse to win a major race.
“Maryland historically has bred really nice horses, maybe they don’t win the Oaks every year, but they’re very competitive racehorses,” Goodall said. “It’s not like this is a lightning in a bottle situation…This sort of puts an exclamation point on it. Maryland’s battled and survived and now we’re going to shine here for the next week, hopefully.”
Manfuso admits that Cathryn Sophia didn’t quite look the part of a dominant thoroughbred. Yet there was something about her bloodlines that seemed promising. The filly’s “grand” mare was Bellterra, who won the Golden Rod and was getting to compete in the Kentucky Oaks before getting injured a few days before the race.
“So her granddaughter said, ‘Here grandma, I’m going to do it for you’,” Manfuso joked.
Cathryn Sophia’s grandma is still at Chanceland, with the other broodmares, hoping to give the farm’s doting grandpa and the state of Maryland another champion.