07/20/2006 11:00PM

New MHBA leader a career horseman


The Maryland Horse Breeders Association became the first organization of its kind in the country when it was established back in 1929.

Its founding fathers couldn't have predicted the complex issues facing the state's Thoroughbred breeding industry in 2006. But they would almost certainly have found a kindred spirit in James B. Steele Jr. - the man elected Wednesday evening to serve as the 32nd president of the MHBA.

A career horseman, Steele, 57, can be found in the fields baling hay on these steamy July afternoons. A few hours later, he might be mingling with the crowd at a political function, dressed in a coat and tie and articulating the reasons why horse farms are an important part of agriculture.

Steele, who succeeds another dedicated and well-versed horseman, William K. Boniface, as MHBA president, keeps up a daily schedule that would exhaust many people half his age.

For the past two years he has served a dual role as manager of the Rooney family's Shamrock Farms in Woodbine, Md. - a job he has held since 1977 - and manager of the breeding operations at the newly established Maryland Stallion Station in Glyndon, Md.

Steele also is chairman of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, an agency within the Maryland Department of Agriculture, as well as president of the Carroll County Farm Bureau. The farm bureau post will end within the next few months, but his work with the industry board is set to continue for another year.

Steele grew up on a large working farm near Lexington, Ky., with a strong background in horses and farming.

"Our family wasn't really in the horse business," he recalled in a 2004 interview with Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine. "But we knew all the horsepeople. We raised horses and cattle and tobacco. I was active in FFA [Future Farmers of America] and showed horses in high school. When I got to college I helped support myself by working at a lot of horse shows. I grew up knowing a little bit about a lot of things."

Although Steele never fulfilled his early dream of becoming a veterinarian, he took graduate courses in equine nutrition, virology, and chemistry at the University of Kentucky after earning a bachelor of science degree from Western Kentucky University.

After college, Steele served a two-year internship at Gainesway, one of Kentucky's leading breeding operations. Through his connections at Gainesway, he was introduced to Pittsburgh Steelers owner Arthur J. Rooney, who was looking for someone to manage his Shamrock Farms.

Steele has plied his trade at Shamrock ever since, as hands-on manager of the 640-acre commercial establishment that is home to three stallions. Over the years, Shamrock has maintained its economic viability by branching out into different activities: becoming a major breeding center for Standardbreds as well as Thoroughbreds, importing and exporting horses, and raising farm crops.

Steele and his wife, Chris, who assists him in the operation of the farm, maintain a small Thoroughbred breeding operation of their own and have produced several stakes horses, including stakes winner My Sweet Lord (by Lord Avie). They have raised five sons - three are in college, one recently graduated from college, and the youngest is in high school.

As MHBA president, Steele will work closely with the newly elected vice president, Ann Merryman, and the incumbent secretary-treasurer, Robert T. Manfuso. Merryman, a longtime owner-trainer, brings a long legacy to the role as a granddaughter of MHBA co-founder Louis McLane Merryman. Her late father, John B. Merryman, served as an MHBA president, as did her sister Katy Voss.

Steele said he intends to encourage more members to become involved in the work of the MHBA.

"To be successful in these trying times, everyone needs to pull together," he said.

Slots legislation, of course, looms as the major issue. And Steele's focus will be on securing a fair share of revenue for the state's breeding fund, if and when expanded gaming comes to Maryland.

"Everyone believes that slots will be our savior," said Steele. "But if we don't get the right percentage, they will be our slayer."