05/18/2016 11:36AM

Better days ahead for Maryland-bred program

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Saturday's 141st Preakness Stakes marks the fifth straight year that Maryland’s signature race will be contested without a statebred runner. This reflects problems that the local Thoroughbred industry has faced, but the good news is that state legislators have instituted measures to reverse these fortunes – plus, there have been other developments recently to reward excellence. Better days for Maryland breeders seem to be on the horizon.

Since the 1990s, the state’s breeding and racing programs had been buffeted by programs in neighboring states that diverted big bucks from alternative gaming to enrich purses and breeders’ awards. This was especially true in Pennsylvania, and to an extent in West Virginia, to say nothing of the largesse New York breeders and owners received when slots began boosting purses there while providing generous awards for breeders and stallion owners.

In 2012, Maryland finally got in step with much of the rest of the nation when it began paying slot money in the form of awards for all overnight races, including claimers. The program began allocating 7 percent of slot revenue to purses for breeder, owner, and stallion awards. For all in-state overnight races, the owner of a registered Maryland-bred who finishes first, second, or third receives a 30 percent bonus of the horse’s share of the purse. For example, if the winning purse is $10,000 and a Maryland-bred wins, the owner gets an additional $3,000. That same formula applies to breeders of Maryland-bred runners who run in the top three, plus, it pays the same schedule for stakes, with a cap of $100,000. Stallion owners receive 10 percent of the purse when Maryland-breds run first, second, or third in any race in the state, including stakes, again with a cap of $100,000.

Those measures stopped a long, slow slide in quality and quantity of racing and breeding in Maryland during which time its purses shrunk and foal crops declined dramatically. The 2000 statebred crop was comprised of 1,212 foals (3.2 percent of the U.S. total); by 2012, that number had a precipitous 70 percent drop to a mere 369 (1.6 percent of the U.S. total). In better days, through the last half of the 20th century, Maryland’s foal crop generally represented around 3.5 percent of the nation’s total.

Purses also have improved in Maryland. In 2000, state tracks had distributed $52.2 million in purse money, with an average purse of $23,716; by 2012, the total had dropped to $40.2 million. Last year, overall purses rebounded to $48.2 million, with an average of $34,960.

With racing apparently headed in the right direction, legislators came up with another idea – to take $1 million from state coffers to revive the defunct but once globally prestigious Washington D.C. International and to set up bonus money for Maryland-breds who compete in the Preakness. Passed unanimously by the legislature, the bill would allot $500,000 annually for three years to fund the International and $500,000 a year in bonus money for owner and breeders of statebred Preakness starters. How that money will be awarded has yet to be determined.

But it comes at a good time, as Maryland-breds have all but conceded the Preakness to other state programs in recent decades.

Since 2000, only six Maryland-bred runners have contested the Pimlico classic – the second jewel in America’s historic Triple Crown – with Magic Weisner’s second-place finish in 2002 the best outcome from that group. The best of the rest was the sixth-place finish recorded by New York Hero in 2003. Only one Maryland-bred has run in the Preakness since 2004.

Clearly, this is not the kind of picture local breeders want to paint, but they have been eclipsed by some of their regional neighbors since the turn of the millennium. New York-bred Funny Cide and Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones won the Preakness in 2003 and 2004, respectively, while during this 16-year time frame, more New York-breds (10) and California-breds (seven) have contested the big race than have members of the home-state team.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Maryland-bred Kauai King’s triumph in the 1966 Preakness. (He is the only Maryland-bred to win the Kentucky Derby). In 141 runnings, eight Maryland-breds have been victorious in their state’s showcase event, though four were from the 1800s. Twentieth century winners included Challedon (1939), Kauai King, Bee Bee Bee (1972), and, most recently, Deputed Testamony, 33 years ago in 1983.

(For those who enjoy trivia, in every Preakness since 1939 when the track has been muddy or sloppy and a Maryland-bred was in the race, a Maryland-bred has won. Challedon won in the mud, while Bee Bee Bee and Deputed Testamony scored on sloppy tracks.)

While the money from slots used to supplement overnight purses has done a good job in moving the Maryland industry forward, the goal for any state program is not so much quantity – though that does create agricultural jobs – but quality.

The breeding world is ultimately built on quality, and nothing defines that more in racing than stakes races.

While only 4.9 percent of North American races each year are stakes events, those are the ones that matter most in terms of money, prestige, and future bloodstock values. Stakes offered an average purse of $143,264 in 2015, while the average for all purses was just $27,341. Notably, stakes races distributed 25.7 percent of all purse money.

Grade 1 races are most sought after by owners because winners of those marquee contests are inevitably offered the best chances as breeding stock. Atop the Grade 1 list are the classics – the Triple Crown races – that have the capacity to send a winner’s potential worth into the stratosphere. The Preakness has a record as one of the best predictors of future stud success for its winners, thus making it a highly sought goal.

Maryland has been home to many great sires through the years, horses like the great Northern Dancer and Native Dancer, both Preakness winners, by the way. Legislators must continue to devise ways to encourage breeders to improve the quality of their Maryland-breds so that the state’s runners can once again make an impact on one of the most important races in America.