Heart and Ability - by Evan Hammonds

Marylanders and Maryland-bred horses have always had heart and ability. Fifty years ago Maryland-bred Kauai King won the first two legs of the Triple Crown (see page 22). Two weeks ago Maryland-bred Cathryn Sophia won the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).

Regardless of where a horse is foaled and raised, it takes heart to win the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), the second leg of the Triple Crown—to be run May 21 in Baltimore. Regardless of where a racing fan is from, it also takes heart to attend the Preakness at historic Pimlico Race Course.

From my first walk through at Pimlico 30 years ago to today, the plant remains, shall we say, “nostalgic.” Crumbling infrastructure, poor sight lines, and a lack of modern amenities for a venue of such a major sporting event have long been hallmarks of the 146-year-old “Old Hilltop,” with an emphasis on “old.”

A year ago the topic of conversation Preakness week was as much about moving the Preakness to the Maryland Jockey Club’s other facility, Laurel Park, as it was about American Pharoah.

This year, however, something positive is happening at The Stronach Group’s two MJC tracks beyond another layer of paint slapped on the grandstand. The Stronach Group has invested $20 million in Laurel and the MJC, the Maryland Racing Commission, the city of Baltimore, and the state of Maryland have banded together to ask the Maryland Stadium Authority to study Pimlico’s impact on the city, the state, and the state’s Thoroughbred business, as well as the viability of the venue. The MSA was selected for its expertise in conducting studies of sports and entertainment facilities.

“We want it to be an unbiased assessment of the benefits of keeping it (the Preakness) there…and also the negative aspects if it were to move,” said Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore state delegate who represents the district where Pimlico is located.

The study, to be conducted in two phases, will take 10 months. Let’s see where it stands for next year’s Preakness.

“The stadium authority’s involvement is a big plus,” said Josh Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, whose family runs Country Life Farm near Bel Air, Md. He is one of many of the state’s lifelong breeders who have survived the hard times Maryland has faced over the last several years. A revitalized breeders’ program begun in 2013 has breathed new life into the state’s breeding industry and put a bounce in horsemen’s steps. The state’s breeding rebound received national attention when Cathryn Sophia’s owner, Chuck Zacney, said after the Oaks he purchased her because she was a Maryland-bred and he wanted to take advantage of the program.

“We’ve been struggling to find our footing in the sale market,” Pons said. “There’s no point in sticking around to breed if there is no market for your Maryland-bred.

“We’ve always been able to breed a good horse here…there’s good land and good horse people. We know how to get a good individual.”

In 1963, the year Kauai King was foaled, the North American foal crop was 15,917. That year there were 661 registered Maryland-bred foals, good for 4.2% of the entire Thoroughbred population. The foal crop of 2013—of which Cathryn Sophia is a member—is approximately 23,000. Maryland-breds, 440, make up only 1.9% of the crop.

That percentage figures to rise over the next few years, but it takes incentives and time.

“Getting mare owners is one of the hardest areas to recharge with enthusiastic people because it’s expensive to own a mare,” Pons said. “If you can’t get $20,000 or $30,000 for a foal, it’s discouraging. Then your only plan is just make babies and hope that somebody else invests the money to get them to the racetrack so you get breeders awards.

“That’s not the Maryland model. Maryland, forever, has been a state where a healthy number of homebreds are raced.”

Eight winners of the Preakness have been Maryland-breds, the last being Deputed Testamony in 1983. There’ll be another before too long because wherever the Preakness ultimately ends being run, Maryland-breds have heart and ability.

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