06/12/2008 11:00PM

Directors face challenging environment

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The Maryland Horse Breeders Association has helped to shape the Thoroughbred industry not just statewide, but also regionally and nationally.

The oldest state breeders' association in the country - founded in 1929 - the MHBA helped to create and continues to administer the Maryland-bred Fund, established in 1962 as the first statebred incentive program in the nation.

Since 1936, the Maryland breeders' group has published a monthly magazine. The format has evolved over the years to become the award-winning Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, which reports on breeding and racing in an eight-state region.

Now the MHBA is approaching one of the most far-reaching challenges in its history. A referendum to take place in the upcoming November election will ask voters to accept or reject the slots program approved by the state legislature in its special session last fall.

No matter the outcome, Maryland's Thoroughbred breeders will soon be conducting business in a shifting economic landscape. For that reason, the MHBA's annual board of directors election took on added weight this spring.

With term limits barring three incumbents from seeking re-election, the five open spots on the board went to veterans Michael Pons, a former MHBA president, and Frank Wright, along with newcomers Jim Dresher, Milton Higgins, and Sally Thomas.

The board has 15 members, with five directorships up for election every year. The directors whose terms did not expire in 2008 are Tom Bowman, Laurie Calhoun, Christy Clagett, Becky Davis, JoAnn Hayden, Don Litz, Ann Merryman, Allen Murray, Brice Ridgely, and Jim Steele.

The three new MHBA board members, each of whom was a first-time candidate, bring diverse experience to the post.

Dresher, 59, is a prominent member of the Maryland business community, as the founder and CEO of Skye Hospitality, which builds and manages hotels.

A Thoroughbred owner since 1975, Dresher serves on the board of several other major institutions in the Baltimore area. He hopes to bring a "fresh set of eyes" to the problems confronting Maryland breeders.

"Clearly the economics of the business are tough in Maryland right now," said Dresher. "As with any struggling industry, the only effective approach is to find new sources of capital."

Dresher, who lives in Harford County, owns 16 horses, including five broodmares. He celebrated his best racing success with 2004 Maryland Million Distaff winner Merryland Missy.

As Dresher noted, the breeding and racing industry traditionally has drawn strength from a blending of full-time and part-time participants.

Higgins, a resident of Montgomery County, represents the latter.

A longtime partner of leading Maryland breeders Tom and Chris Bowman, Higgins, 70, has owned interests in countless Thoroughbreds over the past three decades. He is the breeder, or co-breeder, of numerous stakes winners, including Maryland-bred champions Love of Money - now at stud at Northview Stallion Station - and Richetta.

Also a major philanthropist within the Maryland horse community, as a longtime sponsor of the Maryland Thoroughbred Scholarship Fund, Higgins said he submitted his candidacy to the MHBA board upon the urging of a current director.

"I felt it was important to respond," said Higgins, a former business consultant who holds a master's in business administration from Harvard. "Obviously, I care about what happens, and if I can be of help I'm delighted to try."

Thomas, 39, has made her career as a working horsewoman.

A Howard County resident, Thomas has built her own sales agency, which ranks among the leaders in the Mid-Atlantic market. She manages Hickory Ridge Farm, the Howard County breeding establishment of former Maryland Racing Commission chairman John P. McDaniel.

Thomas also maintains a small breeding operation of her own.

"The next few years will be a turning point," said Thomas. "It's important for everyone with a vested interest to become involved."

Trombetta to judge yearling show

One hundred horses have been entered in the MHBA's annual yearling show, to take place June 29 at the Timonium Fairgrounds. Trainer Mike Trombetta will judge the show, which begins at 10 a.m.

A crab feast will be held the evening before the show at Merryland Farm in Hydes.

For more information call the MHBA at (410) 252-2100.