For a lot of racing fans the turbulent year of 2008 couldn't have ended soon enough. Still, if there is a one sure winner in the racing industry-- it's Pennsylvania. Horsemen are reveling in the record purses dished out at the state's three racetracks and its thoroughbred breeding program is absolutely the best in America.
A couple years ago Tom Bowman, DVM and Richard Golden decided to be players in the Keystone State. The partners began searching for a satellite location for their Northview Stallion Station in Maryland. Sixteen months ago they acquired a 171-acre tract of fertile farmland near Peach Bottom in Lancaster County.
Fence lines are nearing completion and grass has been planted in the paddocks. Construction is wrapped up on an eight-stall stallion barn, a breeding complex, broodmare barn and a management and booking office. Future plans could include two additional 20-stall broodmare barns for the 2010 foaling and breeding season.
Northview's goal: Replicate the lofty thoroughbred breeding success it has achieved in nearby Maryland. Since opening its doors in 1989 the farm's stallions have topped the Maryland sires lists 13 times. Not For Love ($25,000 stud fee) is touted as the best stallion outside of Kentucky bluegrass country and has been awarded Maryland's Stallion of the Year four of the past five years.
Fairbanks is Northview's Pennsylvania headliner. A graded stakes winner he is a heralded son of Kentucky stallion Giant's Causeway. Retired in late October, the five-year old banked $879,768 in career earnings from his 19-6-4-0 racing record. He stands for $7,500.
"He's a $3 million horse, our signature stallion here," Bowman said. "He is a big, good looking horse that should serve the mid-Atlantic region very well."
Northview's new venture is roughly a 40-minute drive from their flagship farm just outside Chesapeake City. One part of their plan is to board maiden and barren mares in Maryland and shuttle them to the new Pennsylvania division to be bred to their Pennsylvania stallions.
"It just made business sense for us if we could find a spot within a reasonable drive," Bowman said. "People can bring their mares from Maryland right up Route 1 to us. The second motivating force was the unknown situation in Maryland. We have no plans to run away and we're not planning on moving our Maryland stallions up here in the future. With the slots passage in Maryland last fall, we're cautiously optimistic. Still, we wanted to take full advantage of the breeding program in Pennsylvania."
Last year the Keystone state posted a 31.5 percent increase in mares bred. The increase was a direct response to Pennsylvania's surging breeding fund that is culled from slot machine revenues and pari-muteul handles. In the first full year of casino operations in the breeding fund soared from $6.9 million to $15.3 million.
This year the fund is expected to surpass $20 million. According to the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, about $3.5 million has been targeted to PA-breds stakes races, a jump of more than $1.5 million for the series than in any previous year.
Philadelphia Park has more than doubled its purses to roughly $290,000, while Penn National purses climbed 63 percent last year to $134,158. In its first year of operation Erie's Presque Isle Downs boasted a stunning daily distribution of $221,088.
Higher purses typically bring larger fields and top-notch horses. The more horses running in a race the higher the payout if you win.
Pennsylvania's eye-popping purses have brought a massive upgrade to the quality of PA stallions. Mike Jester's Penn Ridge Farm near Harrisburg and Northview are leading the charge. Derby and Preakness winner (1998) Real Quiet is the marquee sire at Penn Ridge. Bowman and Golden hope Fairbanks fills that role at their new venture.
Fairbanks was the sales-topper at the 2004 Fasig-Tipton selected yearling sale commanding $1.85 million from Team Valor. He is a half-brother to Grade 2 winner Keats (Hennessy) and Grade 3-placed Grand Score (Grand Slam).
The handsome bay colt scored his biggest career victory in the Hawthorne Gold Cup H. (G2) in late September and also captured he Duke of Magenta Stakes at Saratoga by 5 3/4 lengths.
Northview negotiated a 50-percent interest in the horse from a partnership that consists of Margaux Farm, Team Valor International and the horse's breeders, James Mamakos and veterinarians Dr. Chuck Kidder and Dr. Johnny Griggs.
"It's a region just starting to take off," said Steve Johnson of Margaux Farm, a friend of Bowman's for 30 years. "Tom and Richard have developed successful sires in Maryland in Not for Love, Polish Numbers and Two Punch. We hope they can do the same with Fairbanks."
The charming waterfront village of Chesapeake City, MD is best known as the home of legendary stallion Northern Dancer and Kelso, the only five-time "Horse of the Year." The area blossomed into a thoroughbred breeding center thanks in large part to Mrs. Allaire duPont who bred and campaigned Kelso. She first settled in the area in the 1940s and championed the concept of land preservation until her death in 2006.
Northview emerged when E. P. Taylor's Windfields Farm's Maryland Division, comprising 2,700 acres, abruptly ceased operation in August 1988. Windfields offered a vast array of premier stallions, highlighted by Northern Dancer, who at one time commanded a $1 million stud fee. The farm's closing cast a pall throughout not only Maryland, but the entire thoroughbred industry.
Enter Golden, Bowman and Mrs. du Pont. Golden began working for the family business, a women's apparel manufacturer, in New York in 1960 and eventually rose to the top position of CEO. Bowman is a longtime veterinarian and former president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
Northview's founders took on an urgent mission: Ensure that the Chesapeake City area would continue as a center of world-class Thoroughbred breeding.
Northview did it in spades. But in recent years the farm has been fighting an uphill battle as slots revenues in neighboring states have inflated racing purse funds and breeding funds, which are awarded to in-state breeders.
A lifeline was tossed at the sagging industry when slot machines were finally passed in a Maryland public referendum last November. In the short term it will rejuvenate purses at its storied racetracks. But it won't be easy reviving Maryland's once proud breeding industry, competing with the Keystone State's thriving thoroughbred farms.
Funds can be pumped into racing fairly rapidly, so many of the trainers who set up shop elsewhere may be resurfacing in the Freedom state. Breeding is a whole other animal that takes a substantial outlay of time and money. As a rule of thumb it requires roughly five years to judge whether a mare will be a keeper. You're waiting for foals to grow up, and then they don't hit the racetrack until late summer or fall in their second year.
Bowman wrote the first economic impact study on how slots would impact Maryland's racing and breeding for then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002.
"Although Maryland's breeding industry has historically been strong, in recent years we have been operating on fumes," Bowman noted. "Slots will certainly have a positive impact. How much? No one knows.
"The economic downturn hurts quite a bit, but the core group of breeders is very resourceful. Still, the number of good mares has gotten smaller and more condensed. If the critical mass gets too small that's a big problem. But we haven't reached that point."
Another highly touted sire at the Pennsylvania venture is Medallist. A sensational sprinter, multiple graded stakes and stakes record setter, the seven-year-old is a son of Touch Gold, out of G-1 placed stakes winner Santaria. In his stakes debut, Medallist won the 2004 Withers Stakes (G3) by 3 1/4 lengths and followed with a 3 3/4-length win in (G2) Dwyer Stakes
He arrived at the Peach Bottom location in late November, a few weeks after his first foals sold at the Keeneland Sales with five weanlings averaging $24,600. Medallist stood his first two seasons at Robert and Blythe Clay's Three Chimneys in Midway, Kentucky for $7,500. Medallist will stand at Northview for $5,000.
Congressionalhonor and Partner's Hero both stood at other Pennsylvania farms in 2008. The former is a half brother to 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam that stands for $3,500. The seven-year-old Forestry horse out of Quiet Dance, by Quiet American, won the 2004 Bay Meadows Derby (G3) and covered 239 mares in his three seasons at Maui Meadow Farm near West Chester. His first crop will race in 2009. Maryland transplant Love for Money stands at $3000.
Partner's Hero spent the 2008 season at Castle Rock Farm in Unionville after previously standing at the original Northview Stallion Station in Maryland. Partner's Hero has sired 15 stakes winners in seven crops of racing age. His leading runners include graded stakes winners Heros Reward, New York Hero, and Love Match. He stands for $2,500.
Bowman believes in the long-term the key factor to the success of Pennsylvania's breeding programs will be the quality of the broodmares there.
"Horsemen are operating under a euphoric wave, but eventually there will be a leveling off of slots revenues," Bowman related. "The quality of the broodmares needs to keep pace with the quality of stallions. Will people invest in those types of quality mares? All indications say yes, but at this point we can not say that for sure."