Maryland Horse Breeders Association Celebrating History, Heritage Over 90 Years

by | 10.15.2019 | 2:25pm
Dr. Michael Harrison

With a tradition of Thoroughbred racing that predates the American Revolution by more than a generation, it's no surprise that the first, and oldest, organization in the country created to develop and promote the breeding of horses sprung from Maryland.

The Maryland Horse Breeders Association turned 90 this year, and on Saturday it will celebrate with one of the signature fruits of its labor – the 34th Jim McKay Maryland Million Day program at Laurel Park.

'Maryland's Day at the Races,' the second-biggest day on Maryland's racing calendar behind the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, the mid-May Preakness Stakes (G1), Maryland Million puts the spotlight on stallions that stand in Maryland and serves as an annual source of pride for the MHBA.

Founded by Louis McLane Merryman, Janon Fisher Jr. and Dr. J. Fred Adams in 1929, the year a collapse in the stock market led to the Great Depression, the MHBA has survived and thrived for nine decades in a horse industry best described as unpredictable.

From first President Breckinridge Long, a horseman who served as assistant Secretary of State during World War I, to its 34th, noted veterinarian and horse breeder/owner Dr. Michael J. Harrison, the MHBA has been led and populated by a passionate and dedicated membership.

In addition to his veterinary practice, Harrison owns and operates 188-acre Willowdale Farm in Reisterstown, Md. where he moved with his family in 1962 when the property his father purchased was even larger. Along with presiding over the MHBA, he is a member of the board of directors of Maryland Million Ltd.

“The organization has played a major role in the continuation and the strength of horse racing that we have here in the state,” Harrison said. “Right now we're racing something like 40 percent horses that are entered in the races, so they make up a substantial portion, a very solid portion of racing in Maryland, which is important.

“In any state that has a good breeding program, you've got that steady supply of horses that help to keep the program to continue,” he added. “Where other regions may compete strongly and draw horses away for whatever other reason, we've got that steadiness there.”

Moved in December 2016 to the campus of Goucher College in Towson, Md. after two decades in Timonium, the MHBA's function includes registering Maryland-bred Thoroughbreds to determine eligibility for state-bred races and bonuses. Since 2010, a portion of the money raised from slots at off-track casinos has gone to bolster those bonuses as well as race purses which, in turn, attract quality horses both in and out of Maryland.

“I'm all for the breeding program. I think they've done a great job in getting better stallions in here and more mares bred. All that's a positive as far as I'm concerned,” longtime breeder, owner and Laurel Park-based trainer Hamilton Smith said. “You read the stories about how far back they go, and some of the owners go back quite a ways, too. They're finally getting a break a little bit as far as the benefits from it, which I think they deserve.

“They get these awards, but you have to earn it like everyone else. Some people may think they get all the money and just hand it over to them, but they have to earn it,” he added. “Their horses have to win for them to support the breeders' awards. It's a good thing. I back them 100 percent.”

Maryland horse people hold 705,000 acres for horse-related purposes, more than a quarter of the state's agricultural acreage, including over 16,000 horse farms. With more than 100,000 horses in the state, Maryland has more horses per square mile than any state in the country.

The American Horse Council Foundation in 2017 reported the Maryland horse industry adds $1.3 billion to the state's economy, has an economic impact of $2.06 billion, and an employment impact of 21,532 jobs.

Approximately 500 horse breeders, owners, horse lovers and people from related industries comprise the MHBA's membership. Its mission, according to a strategic planning paper published in 2017, is to “encourage, promote, protect and improve the horse breeding industry in Maryland.”

Just three years after the MHBA was formed, it held its inaugural yearling show in the infield at Pimlico Race Course. Hall of Fame trainer 'Sunny Jim' Fitzsimmons served as the show's judge from its inception to 1942.

To better communicate with its members and help spread the word outside Maryland, the MHBA began publishing The Maryland Horse magazine in 1936. The first, four-page edition has evolved into today's Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, which has earned multiple Eclipse Awards for its coverage.

“You hear people say it, but I really am honored to be president, especially at this time. The horse breeders are truly the number one advocate promoter for the whole equine industry in Maryland,” Harrison said. “It's not just Thoroughbred racing. We also promote other aspects. The Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred … you see the kind of coverage it's given.”

In 1962, as a result of mutual lobbying by the MHBA and Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, the Maryland-bred Fund program was introduced – the first breeders' incentive program in the country.

Under the new law that created the Fund, a 1 percent increase was approved for mutuel takeout. Two-thirds of that 1 percent went to purses, while the remaining one-third was directed to the Maryland-bred Fund. Based on the era's handle figures, it was expected to disburse $408,000 at the major tracks in Laurel, Pimlico, Bowie and Havre de Grace.

Laurel and Pimlico are part of The Stronach Group, North America's leading racetrack owner-operator whose holdings also include Gulfstream Park, Golden Gate Fields and Fort Washington, Md.'s Rosecroft Raceway.

“When you compare us to Pennsylvania and New York, the monies that are available to us for our bonus programs – owners, breeders bonuses – we're not anywhere near the level of the monies that they're able to generate in either of their programs,” Harrison said. “But we do an excellent job with what we've got, and I think it's a combination of the MHBA, the breeders, and The Stronach Group – everybody working together. I think we are working together.”

Maryland Million was the brainchild of late Hall of Fame and 13-time Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Jim McKay, who sought to bring a Breeders' Cup-type event to his adopted home state, devoted and dedicated to its rich horse history. Debuting in 1986, its success has spawned special racing days modeled, at least in part, on Maryland Million in 21 different states and two Canadian provinces.

“We're entered and winning both around 38 to 48 percent in Maryland right now. I think that speaks to how strong our program of breeding is in Maryland that we are producing a horse that is very competitive in the market,” Harrison said. “We have a good race program.”

Each of the two leading first-crop sires of 2019 in Maryland stand at Anchor and Hope Farm in Port Deposit, Md. Located on the banks of the Susquehanna River and close to the borders of Delaware and Pennsylvania, the property can trace its origins back to the late 1600s and is now run by MHBA board member Louis Merryman and his wife, Grace.

Bourbon Courage had five winners and earners of $320,232 from 13 starters out of 45 current 2-year-olds led by Raging Whiskey, winner of Los Alamitos' Capote Stakes and third in the Sanford (G3) at Saratoga. Imagining is second with four wins and $205,861 in earnings from 13 starters out of 54 current 2-year-olds.

Other freshman sires in Maryland include Northview Stallion Station's Golden Lad, whose progeny have won three of 12 starts and more than $172,000 in purses, and Murmur Farm's Hangover Kid, who sired Laurel's recent Anne Arundel County Stakes winner Miss J McKay, named for the Maryland Million's founder.

Northview's Great Notion – fourth all-time with 12 Maryland Million winners – leads all sires in Maryland this year with 17 winners and more than $2.4 million in progeny earnings. Close behind with 16 wins and nearly $2.1 million in earnings is Friesan Fire of Country Life Farms, founded in 1933 by Adolphe Pons and now run by his grandsons, Josh and Mike – both former MHBA presidents.

“You look at the history and the heritage here. The fact is, look at some of the racing families. We've got people that are so active in it right now, whether is the Merrymans or the Ponses … families that have been doing this for generations,” Harrison said. “The appreciation for the history and the passion that's there is special. Kentucky is a different situation and a totally different animal. Of course there's people that have been in the business there for multiple generations.

“But, when you talk about Maryland, they're there, too in terms of the history and the role that it plays. The people, their passion and their drive, it's special. That is part of what makes Maryland special. I really believe that,” he added. “And it carries over to the ability to convince legislators to hang with us and keep giving us the support that we need as we try to get the industry back fully on its feet here in Maryland. I hope they'll see they benefit of this plan that they just came out with and racing in general in the state. I think it's something that they're going to be willing to support.”

In early October, the city of Baltimore and The Stronach Group reached an agreement in principle to keep the Preakness at Pimlico. The plan would require approval from lawmakers in Annapolis; the next General Assembly convenes in January 2020.

“I think it's fabulous. I think it has the potential to do wonderful things for Maryland and Maryland racing, beyond just the racetracks. I'm speaking in terms of the breeding operations, the breeding farms. I do think it has potential to translate there,” Harrison said.

Harrison was elected in 2019 to his second of a maximum three one-year terms as president of the MHBA, whose board is comprised primarily of people elected by membership and supplemented by appointees of the president.

“We just brought on Tom Rooney, whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers and has Shamrock Farm here in Maryland. He brings a different perspective, particularly in terms of having been in Congress and served Washington. He understands that whole business,” Harrison said. “TK Kuegler is on the board. He's a venture capitalist and he's got an awful lot of good ideas and insight. We've got a fairly interesting board right now. It's an exciting time.”

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