Even though we have a pretty lousy record of selecting winners of the Preakness Stakes (G1), despite its being perhaps the most formful Triple Crown race, there are three “sure things” on the agenda prior to the main event May 20.
First up, no matter what the weather forecast says before departing for Baltimore, it will change dramatically by the time of arrival. It never fails that the temperature will swing 20 degrees in either direction from its five-day prognostication before race day.
More importantly, the viable future of Pimlico—home to racing’s second jewel of the Triple Crown—will be discussed at length. Perhaps not talked about enough will be the resurgence of the breeding program in Maryland.
While Pimlico has a certain level of familiarity, it also has serious faults as the host site for a major sporting event. Earlier this year the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated it would cost more than $300 million to renovate “Old Hilltop,” leaving industry types on either side of the economic fence.
“There are believers on both sides,” said Robert “Willie” White, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “It’s the mayor and the people of Baltimore who would like it to stay in Baltimore. There are believers in the history and tradition that go along with the Preakness and Pimlico. Then there are others who say we just can’t afford to do that. We just have to realize we can only support one racetrack and keep it at the highest level.”
That “one racetrack” figures to be Laurel Park, which is closer to Washington, D.C., and has undergone extensive renovations over the last few seasons.
White sees the issue as a national one, not solely tied to Maryland and the Preakness.
“There is a realistic approach that needs to be taken to these things, and over the years we’re going to see racetracks start to thin out nationwide,” he said. “We’re not going to have a horse population large enough to support the number of tracks…so that is why it is becoming more and more important that you focus your efforts and have only the best available facilities.”
While the Thoroughbred population is not growing in North America, it is in Maryland. According to The Jockey Club’s Report of Mares Bred, 923 mares were covered in Maryland in 2016, the highest figure since the Great Recession hit in 2008 and well above the 548 mares bred at the state’s nadir in 2011 before a well-crafted program kicked in with subsidies from casinos.
“It’s been a team effort among the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the Maryland Horse Breeders, and the Maryland Jockey Club,” White said. “They’ve all worked hard together to see the industry improve.”
More mares mean more foals, and the state’s foal crop has grown from 393 in 2011 to 583 in 2015. While the stallion population is stagnant, one would expect those figures to begin an upward trajectory.
“We’ve lost Not For Love; we’ve lost Two Punch; a couple of very popular stallions over the last couple of years, so we need a new star to help us in that category,” White said. “We have a lot of new stallions that have their first year or two under their belt, and we’re waiting to see them prove something.”
Partnerships—both racing and breeding—are helping bolster the bottom line in Thoroughbred centers around the country, and Maryland is no exception.
“You have to have innovative ways to bring new people into the industry,” White said. “The Ponses (Josh and Michael Pons of Country Life Farm near Bel Air) have done this with their racing partnerships and are now doing it with their breeding partnerships. They have a good formula, and it’s bringing some better mares into Maryland and giving their stallions a good chance.
“The Ponses are not the kinds of guys who sit back; they are not waiting for someone else to make their success for them. That’s what has to happen in this industry. You have to have guys who are thinking outside the box and trying to make things happen.”
Another sure thing? Any move forward in this business is vital to preserving the sport and its legacy