Updated on 09/17/2011 11:42AM

Slots would help the mood

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WASHINGTON - When the Maryland Million was run for the first time in 1986, virtually everyone connected with the state's breeding industry was flush with optimism and pride. The Thoroughbred business had been booming for years. Maryland was home to the world's most influential stallion, Northern Dancer. And the birth of the Million - an event that would be copied throughout the country - underscored the state's national prominence.

But as the 18th Million was run last Saturday, there was little such upbeat sentiment among the breeders in attendance. Yes, the crowd was large, the atmosphere festive, and the quality of racing good, but nothing could obscure the fact that the horse business is beset with serious problems.

"The industry is in a depressed state right now," said Thomas Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "I don't know of any industry that can afford to lose 50 percent of its inventory."

According to the MHBA's records, more than 2,000 Thoroughbred foals were born in the state in 1987. By last year, the number was slightly more than 1,000. The population of stallions had plummeted, too - from 279 to 102. The trend could hardly be more ominous, though some optimists think there are reasons to believe that a turnaround is imminent.

The health of Maryland's breeding industry is linked in many ways to the health of the state's racetracks. If the sport is flourishing and purses are high, owners are more likely to be drawn to the business, breeding and buying racehorses. But racing at Laurel and Pimlico has declined perceptibly over the last decade. The fan base is eroding, the facilities are deteriorating, and the quality of the product has been damaged by competition from Delaware and West Virginia, where purses have been boosted by revenue from slot machines.

Breeders have been hurt by other competition, too. About 1 percent of all wagering in the state is channeled into the Maryland Fund, which pays bonus money to breeders and owners of winning horses who were produced in the state. At one time the Maryland Fund was unique, and it gave the state's breeders an advantage over their neighbors. But now other nearby states, notably Pennsylvania, have developed their own breeding-incentive programs that are lucrative enough to lure horses away from Maryland. Murmur Farm in Darlington might be considered a microcosm of the industry.

"We used to foal 75 mares a year here," said owner Allen Murray. "Now we have 50." What has happened to the others? "They're mostly in Pennsylvania - some in Virginia," Murray said. "Their breeding programs are better than Maryland's."

Despite the exodus of horses, the quality of the Maryland Thoroughbred product has remained remarkably high. The state has been the home of extraordinarily productive stallions such as Two Punch, Not for Love, the late Allen's Prospect, and Polish Numbers. Maryland-bred horses are, overall, superior to their counterparts in the other mid-Atlantic racing states. The reason for this enduring strength is that horse-breeding industries don't grow up overnight, no matter how much states try to nurture them. They don't even grow up in a decade.

"Maryland has the equine infrastructure in place already," said Michael Pons of Country Life Farm. "We have the mares, the workers, the training centers. Other states like New York and Pennsylvania don't have that infrastructure."

Maryland received a notable vote of confidence last week when one of Kentucky's major breeding operations, Lane's End Farm, announced it would be a partner in the development of a new breeding farm in Baltimore County. Bill Farish, the general manager of Lane's End, was asked why he was venturing into a state where many of the breeders see gloom and doom before them. He cited the quality of stallions in the state and declared: "Maryland is the oldest breeding region in the U.S.; we don't think Maryland breeding and racing are going to go away."

Most Maryland breeders agree that the industry won't regain its former prosperity unless it gets help from the state - help that could come from the legalization of slot machines. Slots would boost the business by increasing purses as well as the money that would go into the Maryland Fund, making statebred horses much more desirable. An infusion of slot money has had a dramatic effect in other states. Louisiana produces more Thoroughbreds than Maryland because of slot money.

In the bitter debate over slot machines, opponents of the devices have vilified "greedy track owners" and argued that the Maryland tracks don't deserve help. By allowing their product to deteriorate, critics say, the tracks are responsible for their own decline and don't deserve a bailout.

But the same argument cannot reasonably be applied to Maryland's horse breeders. They have made huge capital investments in farmland and breeding stock. They created a high-quality product that earned national respect. Now they have been buffeted by forces beyond their control - the decline of racing at Laurel and Pimlico, the slot-fueled competition from Delaware and West Virginia, the infusion of funds into other states' breeding programs. With some help from the state, the Maryland breeding industry can rapidly restore its former glory.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post