TIMONIUM – Though word has reached as far as Moscow that Maryland racing is in trouble, most of the seats in Timonium have been full and the bidding has been brisk this week at the annual Fasig-Tipton yearling sale.
“This market is roaring,” said Michael Pons, the director of Maryland Million, Saturday’s race showcasing and rewarding Maryland-bred horses and the stallions that sired them with over $1.5 million in purses and awards.
There were 899 horses scheduled for sale over the three-day auction, with horses selling for as low as $1,000 and as high as $230,000 on Monday and money coming from Virginia, Florida, Korea and the Philippines.
In the first day of the auction on Monday, the sale brought in almost $5 million. Last year’s two-day sale, which included the sale of the future Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex, brought in a total of about $8 million.
An enthusiastic Pons predicted that, despite the forecasts of doom for Maryland racing, the sales this year would be close to $10 million. “All our horse sales combined wouldn’t do half of that just 10 years ago,” he said.
Two Russian buyers, speaking through an interpreter, said they were shopping for the best horse for their budget – something under $15,000 with a respectable bloodline. Vasily Melnikov, representing a buyer back in Russia, is on his fifth trip to Timonium and hoping to add to his buyer’s 24 horses back in Russia.
“The quality of horses is getting better and better each year,” Melnikov said. “We’re buying more expensive horses each year.” And while he said he was aware of the “problem” in Maryland, he did not seem bothered by it.
Neither did many of the out-of-town buyers attending the sale, which has been held in the current pavilion since 1965 and seen the sale of numerous offspring of champions like Secretariat and Native Dancer. Last year over 400 horses were bought by out-of-state buyers.
Billy Boniface, president of the Maryland Breeders Association, said more out-of-state horses, like Pennsylvania and Virginia breds, are being sold at Timonium as well.
“To answer the call that we’re a dying industry, each year we’ve had to expand our ability to stable horses where now the entire infield is filled with tents with temporary stabling,” he said.
But more and more, those out-of-state horses and many Maryland breds are leaving Maryland again at the end of the day.
Katie Voss, owner and operator of Chanceland Farms of Howard County, said, “Maryland buyers are looking at our cheaper horses” because smaller Maryland purses make it more difficult for an owner to profit from his investment. Surrounding states offer much larger purses, subsidized by revenue from slot machines.
“We’re dependent on these people coming in from out of town,” she said.
Robert Manfuso, her partner, said, “If there’s a race horse, there’s always a market. Maybe not so in Maryland today, but certainly in the other states.”
For example, Chanceland recently sold one of its top prospects at the famed Saratoga sales for $775,000; by contrast, their best sale at Timonium on Monday brought only $60,000. Both are Maryland breds bought by out-of-staters.
Rather than dying, said Jim Steele, vice president of the horse breeders association, Maryland racing “is moving out of state.”
Pons, owner of Country Life breeding farm, said just this year 18 mares he used to breed to his stallions in Harford County are now breeding in Pennsylvania because their owners are looking toward increased winnings when slots come to Maryland’s northern border.
“I lost them because of the perceived bonanza,” he said. “We’re playing with nickels and dimes” to their dollars.
“It’s got to evolve,” Pons said in an interview. Later, while speaking with the press, Pons specified: “I wish so much that we could move the rock on slots here in Maryland … This is an industry that deserves it.”
That same philosophy brought Jim McKay, famed ABC sportscaster, together with Chick Lang, former general manager of Pimlico, and William Boniface, Billy’s father, in 1986 to create the Maryland Million as encouragement for mares to breed with Maryland stallions.
On Saturday, when the race is run for the 20th time, Maryland will stay in the spotlight, something McKay, who first proposed the idea, hopes will never change.
“I just hope the Maryland Million goes on forever,” he said while visiting Boniface’s Bonita Farm.
“It’s one of the great thrills of my life,” said McKay. “It’s a day Marylanders can be proud of. They own the Maryland Million.”
Until Saturday, though, many more people — like Frank Bennett — will try to own just a horse.
“I lost $36,000 on the last one I bought,” said Bennett, who lived into Maryland until recently. “I thought I’d get another. … You take a gamble with horses.” “I mostly want a horse I can make some money with,” he said. –