04/15/2004 11:00PM

Industry coping without slots for now

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The Maryland Thoroughbred breeding industry is bracing itself for hard times now that it's apparent slots won't be coming to the state any time soon.

"It's a bitter blow, but it means that Maryland's breeding industry has to come up with extremely innovative ways to entice people to stay and breed their horses in Maryland," said Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Legislation to authorize slot machines at Maryland tracks was voted down in the House Ways and Means Committee on Monday, the final day of the legislative session. Last year's slots legislation met a similar fate. There's a glimmer of hope that the legislature might meet in a special session in late August or September, to settle the pressing issues of slots and taxes. If not, the racing industry will continue its quest for slots at the 2005 legislative session, which begins in January.

"Breeding in the state is already down 25 to 30 percent, based on my observations as a veterinarian traveling to various farms," said Bowman. "For the past couple of seasons, we've seen major breeding farms send mares to other states to foal, to take advantage of those other states' programs. Unless the Maryland Fund program is strengthened, there will soon come a time when only diehard Marylanders stick with the program."

This year's legislative session did bring some good news for the industry. The Senate and House both overwhelmingly approved a bill (awaiting the signature of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.) that will significantly give a boost to the Maryland Million. A projected $300,000 to $400,000, or possibly more, will go to the Maryland Million each year, based on a percentage of the in-state handle on Maryland races. The money previously was allocated to a bond fund established several years ago to finance the rebuilding of Maryland's racetracks, a project since abandoned.

"It's something positive, if not the windfall we had hoped for [with slots]," said Maryland Million president Mike Pons.

The Maryland Million, a race program for Maryland-sired horses, is a key element of the business for local stallion owners. "For stallion owners, the Maryland Million has really helped to hold the line," Pons said.

How will the additional Maryland Million revenue will be spent? There are several tantalizing possibilities, said Pons. The money could be used to establish a bonus for Maryland Million-nominated horses winning maiden races, or to add a turf sprint on Maryland Million Day. Marketing and promotion will definitely get a share. "It will be used to grow the program," Pons said.

While hopes for slots run strong, Maryland's major breeding farms, in general, seem prepared to move ahead without them.

"We're not ready to jump ship," said William K. Boniface, breeding manager of family-owned Bonita Farm in Darlington. "We'll just have to be smarter in what we do. People still want to breed to our stallions, but several of our clients have already requested that we foal their mares in Pennsylvania next year, to take advantage of the Pennsylvania breeding program. We'll have to find a farm that will work with us in Pennsylvania, since they have a 90-day residency requirement [for statebred registration]. Bonita will probably be downsized; we'll back off the breeding here, although, fortunately, we do have the training facilities on this farm. It's up in the air at this point."

Don Litz, president of the new Maryland Stallion Station, said groundbreaking is expected at the site adjacent to Sagamore Farm within the next several months - with or without slots. "It's not a positive atmosphere in which to be promoting horses right now," he said. "But we have felt all along that our stallions" - standing this season at Shamrock Farms in Woodbine - "represent good values in comparison to those in other states, and we have always believed that even if our state is the last one to get slots, we can still draw mares from other states."

Said Richard Golden, managing partner of the state's largest stallion operation, Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City: "Obviously, there's no question that slots would be an asset to everybody connected with breeding and racing in Maryland. But because we have the right horses at Northview, our business is strong and as good as it's ever been. [Failure of slots] won't discourage us from buying another stallion for next year, and in fact we're going to."