Virginia, our neighbor to the south, might have the horsiest reputation in the mid-Atlantic. But Larry Murray, a board member for the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association, said our state has Virginia beat.
Maryland has a grand total of 101,457 horses, according to the state equine census, giving us more horses per square mile than any other state. At 90 years old, our breeders’ association is the oldest in the country. And we’re the home of the Maryland Million, a day-long stakes race with a total purse of $1 million. Developed by the beloved sports journalist Jim McKay, the concept was copied by other states and even other countries, Murray said.
“Maryland is responsible for a tremendous amount of firsts as far as the horse industry is concerned,” said the retired trainer, who spent almost 40 years as the manager at Glade Valley Horse Farms in Frederick. “First breeders’ association, first jockeys’ club, first million-dollar purse. We try to highlight that history whenever we can.”
That’s the idea behind an upcoming horse farm tour hosted by the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The (free!) tour marks the 90th anniversary of the Horse Breeders’ Association and leads up to the Preakness — one of the crowning events for the state and national equestrian industry — on May 18.
The 2019 tour is the first for the Horse Breeders’ Association in years, said president Theresa Wiseman. But it’s especially important given a recent downturn in horse racing.
In Maryland, the problems started in 1986 with a sweeping overhaul of the federal tax code, according to an article in the Baltimore Sun. Murray said the change eliminated write-offs for breeders. Over the next few years, the state lost at least half a dozen breeding properties, including Sagamore, a stud farm once owned by the junior Alfred G. Vanderbilt.
Maryland isn’t the only state where the horse industry is facing serious trouble. A 2018 article in the Louisville Courier Journal reported that the number of Thoroughbred races across the U.S. has declined for the past 13 years. But in Maryland, at least, things are looking optimistic, Murray said. In 2013, the state’s Racing Commission implemented a new program that offers a 30 percent bonus to Maryland-bred horses who finish first, second, or third in any race. In a press release, the Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association said that the new incentive program is “intended to resurrect the Maryland horse breeding industry, which has undergone a devastating decline in recent years.”
“Things are very good for people who breed in Maryland right now because of those bonuses,” Murray said.
Renewed interest in off-track betting, including here in Frederick County, has certainly helped, and breeding farms are making a resurgence. In 2007, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank purchased Sagamore Farm and committed to renovating the once-illustrious stables. In 2017, Sagmore-bred horses had their winningest year in the past decade, according to reporting in the Baltimore Sun.
Financial incentives are a good way to promote the industry, Murray said. But he also thinks that outreach events, including the Maryland horse farm tour, are the best way to garner new interest.
“My grandfather used to take me to the races when I was a kid,” he said, “and every breeder or trainer I’ve ever met had some type of exposure to horses as a child.”
Both he and Wiseman hope the public tour will attract new fans or inspire guests to get involved with the equestrian industry.
The tour covers 13 horse farms in Frederick, Carroll, Baltimore, Cecil and Harford counties, all open to the public for the duration of the four-hour event. Summer Wind Farm in Union Bridge is Frederick County’s only representative, and it’s also one that offers a glimpse at a softer side of the horse-racing industry.
For most of its history, said owner Laurie Calhoun, Summer Wind was a commercial Thoroughbred breeding farm and lay-up facility — a place where injured racehorses could go for rest and rehabilitation. But the farm also rehomed retired racehorses too old or injured for life on the track.
“At first, it was just something we did,” Calhoun said. “The horses retire young, but they can live into their 20s.”
Very quickly, though, the rehoming program superseded breeding at the farm. In 2012, Calhoun and her husband, Jerry, officially received nonprofit status and established the Foxie G Foundation at Summer Wind. The program was named after a retired racehorse that earned $392,000 on the racetrack but barely escaped euthanization for a bad case of laminitis — a disease that causes painful inflammation in sensitive hoof tissue. Foxie G was only saved through a successful intervention by the Calhouns’ veterinarian and ferrier.
“And it’s a good thing, too, because he was a phenomenal horse,” Calhoun said. “He used to drink ice water out of Big Gulp cups and never spilled a drop. He would lift the hat off my husband’s head and put it back on again. Everybody just loved him.”
Today, Summer Wind houses roughly half a dozen adoptable horses at any given time, plus goats, donkeys, and a farmful of adoptable cats. Calhoun wants to draw attention to the equestrian industry, but she also wants to dispel its reputation as an unethical breeding ground for animal cruelty. In 2014, PETA and The New York Times published an exposé that showed trainer Steve Asmussen drugging and shocking horses with an illegal electrical device. Other veterinarians, as reported by NBC, have spoken out against a culture that sometimes condones drugging horses to keep them racing past the point of injury.
For Calhoun, the reputation for mistreatment is a misconception against the vast majority of ethical breeders and trainers. And in Maryland, she said, there’s a huge push to protect horses before and after retirement. The state is home to Beyond The Wire, an industry-wide initiative between the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Horse Breeders Association and Maryland jockeys to rehome retired racehorses. Summer Wind has adopted out “athletes,” as Calhoun calls her horses, that have raced in the Derby and the Preakness.
“We retired Tone It Down, who raced in the Preakness, and Sweetnorthernsaint, who raced in the Preakness and the Derby,” Calhoun said. “And that’s what we want people to see. We want them to come out and get interested in the industry itself, and to learn what Maryland is doing to help our athletes after retirement.”