The Washington Post
A Livelihood Could Be on the Vine
As Competition Devours the State’s Horse Industry, Maryland Breeding Farm Looks to Diversify
Three seasons removed from his last as an active stallion, Deputed Testamony lives a quiet life on Bonita Farm in Darlington, Md., at 27 the oldest living Preakness Stakes winner. The dark brown horse’s back curves from age, and he doesn’t shed his winter coat as quickly as he used to, but Deputed Testamony stands in his twilight years as a fading reminder of the onceglorious Maryland thoroughbred breeding industry, an industry pummeled to the brink of ruin in recent years by economic dynamics beyond its control.
Deputed Testamony earned $626,154 in a racing career capped by a victory in the 1983 Preakness Stakes, and the money allowed the family of Bill Boniface, who bred and trained the horse, to move operations from a 40-acre farm in nearby Bel Air to the sprawling beauty of the 235-acre Bonita Farm of today.
Behind the idyllic picture of sloping green pasture at the farm, however, there is trouble. Busi- ness has been drying up at Bonita as it has been at breeding farms around the state, and Boniface has had to turn to other sources of revenue, planting grapes for wine and fir trees to be sold at Christmas.
Across the border in Pennsylvania, the state government has legalized slot machines and begun pouring money into the thoroughbred industry, not only galvanizing a second-tier racing program, but driving explosive growth in breeding as well.
Boniface, like many others, has watched his clientele abandon Maryland, following the money north, and now he is trying to keep his farm viable and support a horse business that struggles to pay the bills.
To do that, he has begun to diversify, and recently he has planted 2,500 merlot grapevines on his property as well as 1,500 trees — Douglas and Fraser fir and Norway spruce to sell as Christmas trees. He also has set aside 25 acres to make hay.
“The wine consumption in North America in the past two decades has gone up 30 percent,” Boniface said. “There are 26 wineries in Maryland, and
they’re all looking for grapes.”
Asked what an old horseman knows about growing grapes, Boniface has an easy answer: “I drank a lot of wine in my day.”
The vines won’t produce grapes for three years, and a full crop doesn’t arrive until the fifth, but with the possibility of yielding about $8,000 per acre, Boniface figured it was a prudent investment.
“We’re going to have to find another way to meet the nut unless something happens and slots come in to Maryland, and the breeding fund and things like that swing back,” Boniface said. “We’re going to try some diversification to survive. Our expertise, naturally, is in the horse farm. That’s what we know. My partners, my sons [Bill Jr., who runs the breeding operation, and Kevin and John, both trainers], that’s what we know. If you can’t get enough horse business, you have to do something else.”
The economic impact of the Maryland horse industry is $1 billion, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the American Horse Council Foundation, with 28,000 equine-related jobs in the state. The 2002 Maryland Equine Census found 206,000 acres of land in the state used for equine operations. Maryland also is home to the Preakness, one of the most recognizable races in the world, which this year attracted a crowd of 121,263 and nearly $87.2 million in a single day of wagering.
Yet in the past few years, as horse racing revived in Delaware, West Virginia and, most recently, Pennsylvania with the legalization of slot machines, the Maryland legislature has failed to take steps to protect what once was the leading thoroughbred state in the mid-Atlantic.
In 1992, Maryland produced 1,470 registered thoroughbred foals, 4.2 percent of the country’s entire crop. In 2004, there were just 900 registered foals, or 2.6 percent of the nation’s crop. Stallion numbers declined even more dramatically: 110 stallions stood in the state in 2001; this past year, there only were 64.
Boniface has room for six horses in his stallion barn, but right now he only has two: 1994 Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin and Mojave Moon.
“This year, we probably covered about 42 mares, and in a good year, maybe five years ago, that number would have been 150,” Boniface said.
This year, the farm cut Go for Gin’s stud fee from $7,500 to $4,000, and he has attracted 38 mares. Few breeders, though, were interested in Mojave Moon.
Boniface sold another stallion, Swear by Dixie, to a farm in Chile. Deputed Testamony is just like an old relative living out his final years with the family.
“It’s real sad,” said Stephen Quick, a breeder who owns the 130-acre St. Omer’s Farm in Forest Hill, Md. “We’ve been around here around 31 years and the Bonifaces have been in it forever. Boniface is doing grapes, trees. I heard he might do some cattle. Another farm, a big breeding farm, has started to do some breaking and training. Our clients, we were going to lose them all. They were going to Pennsylvania.”
Instead of diversifying on his property like Boniface, Quick bought a piece of land in Pennsylvania for clients who wanted to qualify their foals in a state with a healthy bred-fund program that rewards breeders whose horses succeed on the racetrack.
Meantime, on Wednesday, the Maryland Racing Commission approved cuts in breeder incentive rewards from the Maryland bred-race fund, which distributed approximately $4 million this past year. The Pennsylvania bred fund, by contrast, is expected to grow to be 10 times as large in the coming years.
Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, sees the farmers scrambling, and said it is better than them moving out of state.
“I’d rather see people diversify than leave,” Goodall said.
Goodall said the only part of the Maryland thoroughbred breeding business that remains strong is the stallions. Yet leading sires Not for Love and Two Punch are 17 and 24 years old, respectively, and while there are promising stallions getting their careers underway, none command the $20,000-plus stud fees those two attract.
“Once those stallions start leaving, the breeding business will be severely compromised,” Goodall said. “If Pennsylvania improves its stallion ranks, and they will, they’ll get more money flowing. If nothing happens here, you’ll see the stallions start migrating. If nothing happens in Annapolis, and they say we don’t need the horse business, you’ll see people moving lock, stock and barrel.”
Boniface and others, however, are trying to hang on, hoping help arrives.
Rob Deford, who runs Boordy Vineyards, a 230-acre winery in northeastern Baltimore County, believes a well-known name such as Boniface could be a boon to Maryland’s tiny wine industry. When Deford first met Boniface, who had come by Boordy looking for information, he didn’t know who he was. But the winemaker’s wife, Julie, came from a background steeped in Maryland steeplechase racing.
“She said, ‘Let me tell you who he is,’ ” Deford said. “To have a man like Bill Boniface take an interest in [the wine business], it’s momentous. But this is just a very nice sideline for Bill. I have very mixed feelings. I’m delighted Bill’s in our industry, but I don’t want his to go away.”
Boniface recently returned from a trip to California, where he visited the winery of a friend and asked for advice on how to make his grapes grow well enough for a demanding winemaker to want to buy them. What Boniface would like most is to get back to what he already does know as well as anyone in the country — how to raise horses.
“It’s just a diversionary tactic,” Boniface said of his immersion in grape growing. “If the horse business comes back, it will fade down.”