Home Archived Articles The Maryland Horse Industry: Back in the Running

The Maryland Horse Industry: Back in the Running

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Maryland is known as the “Old Line State” and “America in Miniature.” Those are memorable nicknames, true; but the state doesn’t really have a catchy slogan.

On that note, consider this: If Virginia is for Lovers, Maryland should be for horses.

A bumper sticker that says “Maryland Is for Horses” would be a clear nicking of another state’s decades-long marketing success; still, it fits, considering the breadth of the industry and its impact on the state’s bottom line.

And, of course, everyone knows the state has a rich horse racing history and is the home to the Preakness Stakes, and how the eyes of the sporting world are riveted on Pimlico Race Course — Ol’ Hilltop, to many a local — every May, bringing huge brand awareness to Maryland and the industry.

But there’s so much more. Think about breeding facilities; horseback riding; horse rescues; entertainment outlets, such as Medieval Times at Arundel Mills, etc., that are all part of a $1.6 billion industry that employs 28,000 workers, according to the most recent figures from American Horse Council.

That’s the word from Ross Peddicord, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board (MHIB), a program of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, as he contemplates the results of the just ended Maryland Horse Chase (MHC), what he called the first “statewide horse scavenger hunt,” which was established to ingratiate the more casual observers into an industry that has gotten its groove back in the recent years.

All told, it has Peddicord, the former long-time horse racing analyst for the Baltimore Sun, feeling upbeat about the future of the industry.

Starting Something New

The MHC has its roots in a survey the Department of Agriculture conducted in 2012 with the Maryland Center for Public Policy.

“It mainly consisted of two questions,” said Peddicord. “The first was, ‘Is anyone in your house interested in horse riding or going to a horse event as a spectator?’ About 45% said yes,” he said.

The other was, “In the last year, has anyone in your household ridden a horse or been to a horse event, like the Preakness, Maryland Million or the Columbia Grand Prix (of Maryland’s 50 premiere horse events per year)?” That drew the affirmation of 15%. The two responses got Peddicord’s gears turning.

“Just from a grassroots marketing event, like Horse World Expo [held at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, in Timonium], more people sounded interested than the public may have imagined. But we needed to have events for them to attend,” he said.

So, he created one.

Doing so was fairly easy, since “We license 773 riding stables in Maryland, from various niches. And know that there are only 580 towns in the state,” he said. “So, we asked stable owners about establishing Horse Discovery Centers, where the public could learn more about horses and the industry. Sixty-eight stables were interested, 45 applied and we certified 35, across 15 counties.”

The hunt incorporated some horse farms and race tracks, like Rosecroft Raceway, in Prince George’s County, and Pimlico. “There were 297 people who signed up, and 138 completed the hunt,” said Peddicord, adding that the MHC web site had 32,000 unique page views.

The cost of the exposure? It was $8,000, set up by Masters of the Hunt, of Orlando, Fla.

Economic Stalwart

One of the many organizations that supported the MHC is the Timonium-based Maryland Horse Breeders Association, “because it exposed people who may have known plenty about racing to other facets of the horse industry,” said Cricket Goodall, executive director.

Goodall observed that the MHC “was apparently very competitive” and discussed how it helped to generate more business, “which is of the utmost importance, because we’re heading into Preakness season.

“I don’t think the general public understands what importance that part of our economy holds,” she said, “and the state has a strong reputation in the industry.”

And the state’s industry, she said, is coming back.

“We were at a competitive disadvantage until the casinos opened and we started to receive the 7% purse dedication account,” Goodall said of the funding, which is split between the breeders, owners and trainers in the standardbred and thoroughbred industries.

Shift by Stronach

Expanding on that thought was Katy Voss, co-owner of the Chanceland Farm, in West Friendship.

“The money from the slot machines has made a huge difference,” said Voss, noting that Chanceland-bred International Star was set to run in the Kentucky Derby at press time (and hopefully the Preakness two weeks later). “It was only a little bit of money the first couple of years, but as the two large casinos came online, the figure has gone up and up.”

The extra money, she said, has been dedicated to purses, with 57% of the money guaranteed to the winner. “Our purses average about $26,500 per race, but that number needs to be higher for breeders and owners to make ends meet. The toughest part of this business is that owning a horse is very expensive.”

The public “thinks the state dedicates too much money to the horse industry, but that’s really about paying $3,000–$4,000, per month, to maintain a horse,” Voss said of the money, which often is spent locally.

Voss shifted gears to discuss the approach of the Stronach Group, of Aurora, Ontario, which owns Laurel Park and Pimlico, and three other tracks.

Stronach had “been treating Maryland as a stepchild in recent years, but the infusion of money from the casinos coincided with Stronach recognizing the potential here and shifting more focus to Pimlico and Laurel” from one of its other tracks, Gulfstream Park, in Florida.

Now, Stronach needs to come up with “a big plan” to “direct their share of the casino money to capitals improvements,” Voss said. “The casino money will level off at some point, so they also need to focus on increasing the handles [the betting pool of each card]. The wagering of $465,000 on a feature race on a Thursday afternoon, which happened recently, shows progress.”

Encore?

Martha Clark, owner of Clark’s Elioak Farm, in Ellicott City, knows that, in the big picture, riding horseback on a farm is just as important as hurtling up the backstretch.

“I’ll estimate that we have 5,000 kids a year come here to ride the horses, and it costs just $2 each time,” Clark said. “It’s an opportunity to start learning, too. Horses are fascinating. They come in so many shapes and sizes.”

And there are many, many people in Maryland who are already interested in horses — in general.

“We take a great joy in the fact that many kids have their first horse ride here at our petting farm. Some get the bug and want more rides,” she said, adding, “Anytime you get children and animals together, it’s a great thing. When they have to take care of another creature, it makes them more mature.”

All told, the efforts of Peddicord and the MHIB seem to be appreciated by the rest of the industry. It will be interesting to see if Maryland Horse Chase II happens next spring.

Don’t be surprised if it does.

“I think it is really exciting that the MHIB has created the Horse Discovery Center concept in an effort to help make one of the largest horse industry states more accessible to the public,” said Caroline Robertson, development director at Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR), in Woodbine. “The centers are made up of 36 different businesses covering various areas of the horse industry: from profit to nonprofit, with each providing the public a unique experience with horses.

“With the cross-promotional efforts, the hope is that the ripple effect ensures that the industry thrives in Maryland,” Robertson said. “[The MHC] is truly quite impressive.”

Goodall summarized the plight of the industry by saying what she, and many of her peers and fellow horse lovers, think.

“I’m a native Marylander, and when I was young, what you talked about was crabs, the Chesapeake Bay and horses,” she said. “That’s what Maryland was known for. We’re trying to make sure that happens again.”