02/25/2005 12:00AM

Houghtons score with Pa.-bred fund

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Ron and Betsy Houghton don't mind losing in the claiming game. In fact, they've made a career of it.

Proprietors of 300-acre Sylmar Farm in near Quarryville, Pa., the Houghtons annually bring a dozen or so homebreds to the Pennsylvania racetracks. "We try to run them a few times, and get them claimed," Ron Houghton said.

While racing for their new owners - who pay the bills - the Houghtons' former runners frequently generate breeder awards from the Pennsylvania Breeding Fund program.

In 2004, their best year yet, the Houghtons reaped $129,192 from the fund, the most of any breeding operation in the state.

"We were very excited and happy to be the leading breeder. It was a first for us," Ron Houghton said.

The Houghtons are unusual in that their fund total was achieved exclusively with breeder awards; not a cent of stallion or owner bonuses went into their earnings.

The Houghtons toppled perennial leader Charles and Luisita Cuprill, whose total was $119,868, followed by Our Farm Inc. ($94,320).

Not surprisingly, Ron Houghton extols the Pennsylvania breeding program, which pays a percentage of the purse share for Pennsylvania-breds that finish first, second, or third in any race in the state. The awards amount to 30 percent for horses bred and sired in the state, and 20 percent for out-of-state-sired Pennsylvania-breds.

"The Pennsylvania program is one of the best there is, because it helps everyone," said Houghton. "You don't have to have a top horse to benefit from it."

The Houghtons are upgrading their broodmare band in anticipation of better quality racing to be fueled by slots revenue. But they don't plan any major changes in their farm operation.

Sylmar, in addition to housing the Houghtons' own stock, is one of the largest commercial boarding and training facilities in the state, with about 150 horses on the premises year-round.

More than 100 yearlings come to Sylmar for breaking each year, with the training division headed by the Houghtons' son Bernie, who was the nation's leading steeplechase rider in 1985. Top horses who have received their early education at Sylmar include Grade 1 winners Broad Brush, Valley Crossing, and Jostle.

Sylmar has nearly 25 employees, and boasts numerous amenities, including 82 stalls, a five-eighths-mile training track with starting gate, and a 1 1/4-mile turf course available nearby. In addition, the Houghtons grow their own hay, and maintain a herd of beef cattle.

The farm is the culmination of a lifetime of joint efforts for the Houghtons, who are soon to celebrate their 43rd wedding anniversary. Both natives of Chester County, Pa., horse country, the couple grew up together, taking part in Pony Club, and competing against each other in point-to-points.

Ron's father, Bernard Houghton, was the longtime manager of Cortright Wetherill's Happy Hill Farm in Newtown Square, a once-prominent establishment that holds an enduring place in history as the early home of Raise a Native. At age 21, Ron took over a barn at the Radnor Hunt Club and began his own boarding business - having already completed a two-year agriculture program at Penn State and served apprenticeships with trainers Burley Cocks and Ridgely White.

Early in their marriage, the Houghtons operated a steeplechase training business in Camden, S.C. They returned to this state in 1970, buying a farm in Rising Sun, Md., which they quickly outgrew. They moved to their present site in 1975.

"It's wonderful how it's all happened," said Houghton, noting that three of their four children live on the farm. Their daughter Wendy Kinnamon operates nearby Breakaway Farm with her husband Travis. Breakaway's thriving breaking-and-boarding business frequently handles overflow from Sylmar.