MARYLAND, MY MARYLAND

Post-Preakness Stakes reflections on Maryland Thoroughbred breeding and racing, historically and in the future:

The cradle of Thoroughbred breeding in the United States is Virginia. However, its next-door neighbor Maryland was also a place where blooded stock was bred before there was a United States. In 1747, the Provincial Governor of Maryland, Samuel Ogle, started Belair Stud in what is today Prince Georges County, close to Washington, DC.

In 1898, William Woodward Sr. of New York City purchased Belair Stud. Although Woodward was born in New York, part of his family roots were in colonial Maryland. Belair Stud was the leading Thoroughbred nursery in the United States for many years, breeding two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and his son Omaha, and was a major force in Europe as well. Moreover, Woodward was chairman of the Jockey Club for two decades.

Upon Woodward’s death in 1950, his son William Jr. took over Belair Stud. The Belair dynasty ended tragically when William Jr. was shot and killed by his wife in their New York home in October 1955, when she mistook him for a prowler. His champion 3-year-old of 1955, Nashua, was sold for a then-record price of over a million dollars to a syndicate headed by Leslie Combs of Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky. Today, the Belair Stud stable is a museum.

From 1933 until 1986, Alfred G. Vanderbilt II bred top-quality Thoroughbreds at his Sagamore Farm in Baltimore County. This is where the “grey ghost” Native Dancer is buried.

In the 1960s, Maryland again became a focal point for the Thoroughbred breeding industry after Toronto industrialist E. P. Taylor purchased a farm and established an American branch of his Windfields. Taylor sent his 1964 Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer to stand there, and the Dancer became the preeminent worldwide sire of his time.

Maryland is an historically notable racing state, with the Maryland Jockey Club founded in 1743. George Washington reportedly traveled to Annapolis to watch races.

Havre de Grace racetrack (1912-1950) attracted such greats as Exterminator and Triple Crown champions Sir Barton and Citation.

Bowie racetrack was the winter venue for Maryland racing until 1985, when it closed and was turned into a training center. It was not unusual to see the likes of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in attendance at the Bowie races during the 1940s and 1950s.

Laurel Park racetrack (circa 1911) outside Washington , DC was once the site of some premier racing, and in particular the Washington DC International at 1 ½ miles on the turf. Matt Winn, who built the Kentucky Derby into America’s premier race, was brought in to manage and promote Laurel Park in 1914.

Pimlico,  in Baltimore, has been home to the Preakness Stakes for most of the runnings since 1873. The track hosted the famous match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral in 1938.

Timonium still holds a short race meet during the Maryland State Fair in late August and early September.

Currently, the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton is the base of some outstanding trainers, including Michael Matz and Graham Motion. Barbaro and Animal Kingdom were prepared for the Triple Crown at Fair Hill. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations is headquartered in Elkton.

Having attended graduate school and taught at the University of Maryland some 40 years ago, I can recall a vibrant Maryland Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry. In the years since then, I’ve watched from afar as the situation has deteriorated, with the occasional mention made of moving the Preakness out of state.

During NBC-TV’s telecast of the 2012 Preakness Stakes, the network carried a vignette about Kevin Plank, who went from being a University of Maryland football player to founder of what has become the hugely successful clothing company Under Armour. NBC described and showed how Mr. Plank bought and revitalized a dilapidated Sagamore Farm.

In my mind, this can be an omen. With a relatively young home-grown doer like Kevin Plank—and many other dedicated people in the Free State–the future of Thoroughbred racing and breeding can be a lot brighter. It would help immensely if elected state officials join in preserving the heritage and the jobs.

Maryland has always had dedicated and savvy people–like the late John Schapiro, Jim McManus, and Frank DeFrancis–who sheparded racing through good times and bad. I am rooting for their successors to find a way to save and enhance the racing and breeding franchise that has been around since more than 30 years before the Declaration of Independence from Mother England.

Copyright © 2012 Horse Racing Business

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