ANNAPOLIS – Eight years ago, three men from South Korea stepped into the office of Errol Small, marketing and agriculture development chief at the Maryland Department of Agriculture, and wanted to buy some horses.
Today, Maryland horses constitute 60 percent of South Korea’s thoroughbred racing stock. The boost in horse sales abroad, said Small, came after the Koreans’ visit sparked an MDA study of international interest. The process culminated in a record sale of $337,110 worth of horses early this week to buyers from Russia, Ukraine and South Korea.
As the state’s horse industry struggles to keep breeders from straying to surrounding states, some say worldwide business will help mitigate this loss.
Small suggests this year’s annual overseas sales could top last year’s $285,000 by at least $60,000. Aggressive promotion and word of mouth, said Small, have led to an international craving for Maryland equine stock.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich has said slots could save the state’s horse industry. Robert Burk, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, says, slots aside, international business could buoy breeders in the interim.
“Hopefully, we are creating another stream of revenue,” he said, adding that the money from slots in nearby states has fattened their race purses and breeder incentives, attracting much of the Maryland market.
But a long tradition of thoroughbreds in Maryland, said Burk, has attracted racers and breeders abroad. For incoming buyers, a Maryland horse is “a little less of a gamble.”
“It’s hard to say what attracted me, but Maryland is a strong state for horse breeding,” said Yakov Mann, a trainer representing a Russian buyer, through an interpreter. He bought 13 horses at this week’s Fasig-Tipton Co. yearling sale, after the two he bought in Maryland in 2003 won races in Moscow.
The state sold 37 horses to overseas buyers at the auction, and that number is rising. Many of this week’s delegates will also attend Saturday’s Maryland Million, a race eclipsed in regional importance only by the Preakness Stakes and Pimlico Special.
While Small thinks the international market will mostly stick to Maryland, Burk admitted that market could disperse.
“We will probably always have international interest, but it becomes easier and easier for other states to take away that market as time goes on,” he said.
That business has already spread to other states, according to Mason Grasty, Fasig-Tipton executive vice president.
“We’ve been working for years trying to find the buyers, trying to find the right people from these countries,” said Nancy Wallace, the MDA director of international marketing. To retain them, she said, her department will continue to pursue those people, training its sights next on China.
“It would be an incentive for breeders to stay here,” she said. Breeders make up a state industry worth $5.2 billion, according to the 2002 Maryland Equine Census.