10/16/2007 12:00AM

Maryland breeders deserve a helping hand

EmailWASHINGTON - When horse breeders gather Saturday at Laurel Park for the Maryland Million, a pall will hang over the normally festive event. People who have spent their lives raising horses know that their once-vibrant industry is declining, if not dying. And they are pained when they hear critics say that the state shouldn't try to help their business. That was the conclusion of an editorial in The Washington Post this summer. Titled "Sentiment vs. Horse Sense," it was the latest of the newspaper's many jeremiads about the evil of slot machines. The Post dislikes gambling and it especially dislikes the argument that slots should be legalized as an aid to help the horse industry.

It rejected Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration's "assumption that the racing industry in Maryland is worth saving." The Post declared that racing "has proved inept at competing for dollars in the 21st century marketplace." Therefore, it deserves the same fate as "many other industries that over time have shrunk, disappeared, or evolved."

The argument blurred the fact that the Maryland horse industry has two distinct components: the racetracks and the breeders.

The owners of Maryland's racetracks are not entitled to much sympathy. While they have been buffeted by forces out of their control - particularly the competition from tracks in neighboring states that have legalized slots - they have done little to help themselves or to take care of their existing customers. Critics argue that Joe De Francis and the Magna Entertainment Corp., which bought Laurel and Pimlico from him, don't deserve to be enriched by slot money when they bear a good deal of responsibility for the decline of their business.

But the same cannot be said of the state's breeders.

For decades, Maryland's breeding industry has been an exemplar for the nation; states from coast to coast have envied its success and copied its innovations. The Maryland Million, created in 1986, was the first event to showcase the progeny of a state's stallions; more than 20 states have subsequently imitated it. The Maryland Fund, created in 1962, was the first program to pay incentives and bonuses to winning horses bred within the state. Now almost every state offers such an incentive program, but Maryland did it the right way. While New York and New Jersey subsidize mediocrity by paying big purses for low-level races, Maryland has always tried to promote quality. The money for Maryland-breds went into stakes races and into bonuses for horses who could win against open competition.

Even though other states had greater resources, Maryland could compare itself favorably to any other regional (i.e. non-Kentucky) breeding program in the U.S. The state has been home to a long line of extraordinarily productive stallions - such as Allen's Prospect, Not for Love, Polish Numbers, Two Punch, and Rollicking. They weren't glamorous stallions like the big names in Kentucky, but for reasonable fees they dependably sired winners in large numbers, year after year. Maryland has been a strong breeding state, too, because developing good female Thoroughbred families is a long-term project, and Maryland was home to breeders who had been raising horses for decades.

The Maryland breeders weathered the collapse of the national bloodstock market in the 1980s. They weathered the decline of the Maryland tracks because there was a demand for their horses throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. But now they face a challenge for which they have no answer.

As slot machines were legalized in nearby states, most of them earmarked a slice of the slot revenue for their breeding programs. The Maryland Fund pays out about $4omillion a year - a figure that hasn't grown in two decades - but this amount has been dwarfed by slot-generated subsidies in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New Jersey. Pennsylvania legalized slots this year, and more than $8 million is earmarked for Pennsylvania-breds, but this number is projected to grow to $28 million. Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., was offering maiden races with a purse of $70,000 - and tacking on a 40 percent bonus to horses bred in the state.

Such bonuses are a powerful lure even for people with deep roots in Maryland.

"People with stallions [in Maryland] are very conflicted about whether to open satellite facilities in Pennsylvania," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "They need to answer the call of the consumers who are asking for a Pennsylvania alternative. How do they answer people who ask them, 'Why should I breed in Maryland?' "

The competition has had a sudden and dramatic impact on the size of the Maryland industry. In 2002, according to the Jockey Club's statistics, there were 106 stallions standing in Maryland; by 2006, the number had plummeted to 66. Meanwhile, slot money has spurred the business in neighboring states. A total of 535 Thoroughbred mares were bred in West Virginia in 2002; last year the total had more than doubled, to 1,134.

It is a spurious argument - at least in the case of the horse breeders - for opponents of slots to say that revenue from the machines shouldn't be used to bail out a dying industry. The horse breeding business in Maryland was healthy, an economic and environmental asset to the state, until slot money infused other breeding programs in the Mid-Atlantic region. Now, for the first time, Maryland breeders need help from the state to remain competitive. They deserve that help.

(c) The Washington Post