Marylanders Discovering New Business Opportunities with Russia

When it comes to our government agencies, farmers and horsemen generally think of them in terms of what they don’t let them do (i.e. this reg prohibits me from doing that). Rarely do we think of government agencies in terms of what they do help us do.

Not so for five members of Maryland’s equine industry, who traveled to Russia as part of an equine industry trade delegation from the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

This visit reciprocates an earlier Preakness week visit made by a similar delegation to Maryland from Russia. The Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Errol Small and his staff, working with Tim Capps of the Maryland Horsebreeders Association, Judith Robinson of the U.S. Department of Commerce (BISNIS), and Myriam Norris of the Maryland Sister States Program, brought the first delegation of Russian horsebreeders to the U.S. since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Russian delegation was led by the Ministry of Agriculture’s top equine authority, B.D. Antontsov, and included the directors of the National Horsebreeding Association, Equine Husbandry in Northwest Russia, the country’s largest breeding farm, and the Racing Manager of the Moscow Hippodrome.

Following World War II, Russian Thoroughbreds were excluded from the International Studbook, but were re-admitted about three years ago. Despite exclusion, Russian Thoroughbreds did run, by special permission, in several Laurel International Racesthe horse Anilin racing second only to Kelso. The delegation’s goal was to establish contacts with Maryland’s horse racing and breeding community, so they visited Bonita Farms, Country Life, Green Willow, Shamrock, Winback and Pin Oak Lane, as well as made visits to Rosecroft, Pimlico and the Fasig-Tipton sales. The visit also included a horse show at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center.

Maryland reciprocated with a trade delegation visit of their own. In addition to MDA Secretary Hagner Mister and international marketing specialist Nancy Wallace, the delegation included Judith Green with the U. S. Department of Commerce, and Myriam Norris of the Maryland Sister States Program. Representing the Maryland horse industry were several farm owners who had agreed to host the Russians in the spring: Carolyn & Ron Green of Green Willow Farm, Mike Pons from Country Life Farm, Bill Solomon from Pin Oak Lane, Joe Thomson of Winback Farm, and Tom Chickas, CEO of Rosecroft.

However, the Maryland visit to Russia included non-racing interests as well, and so the group was broadened to include Sparks resident Dennis Potts a livestock importer and exporter handling both cattle and horses, and Woodbine resident Gene Freeze, owner of First Choice Farm, a dressage training facility, and County Saddlery (an international saddle manufacturer).

After a three day visit to Moscow, which Gene Freeze characterized as “absolutely electrifying,” the delegation split into two groups, with the racing interests headed off to Krasnodan while the others went to St. Petersburg, where the racing interests eventually joined them. The groups visited various collective farms, once state owned but now privately incorporated.

The farms are really large communities, often with several hundred people working and living on them. It is not unusual for the stud farms to have different agricultural operations which then help to support the equine activities. For instance, one sport horse operation relies on income from the beef and dairy cattle operation.

As the official saddler for the Russian Olympic team, Freeze has had a long term relationship with Russian equestrian leaders, but this was his first visit to the country. What struck Freeze most about the farms he visited was the outstanding care of the horses. “After Peristroika,” explains Freeze, “and the state sponsored funding ceased, there was no money to purchase grain to feed the horses, but the horseman there are resourceful as all get out. Their facilities are meager, and they don’t have any of our technology or pharmaceuticals or productssometimes they don’t even have latches for the stall doors, but all the horses are in excellent condition, and that, after all, is the true test of the horseman.”

Robinson noted that the Russian Arabs, Tersk horses and Akhal Tekes have been successful in endurance (Russian import, Muskat, was the top rated U.S. Arabian horse before his death last year), but she also noted that they have been breeding successful sport horses for several generations. The Russians breed Trakheners and a breed they simply call the Russian Riding Horse, which is suitable for dressage, eventing and show jumping. Freeze discovered that the horses are started early there, and the philosophy and methodology of dressage training is very similar to that of the German school of thought. And, according to Freeze, Germans have been buying and reselling Russian horses for several years, but he doesn’t think that Americans should run to Russian to find bargains. “If there are bargains,” he explained, “the Germans have already found them. Russia is so vast, that it doesn’t make business sense to just go there on a buying tour. First of all, it is going to cost at least $4,000 to get there, and then at least $7,000 to import the horse.”

Although Marylanders may not be rushing over to buy sport horses just yet, the Russians are, apparently, quite interested in improving their Thoroughbred racing stock by purchasing Maryland horses, and so are planning a return trip for the Timonium Fasig Tipton sales in December. Additionally, officials representing the area surrounding St. Petersburg are interested in developing a Standardbred race track. It is interesting to note that in Russia, race tracks, or “hippodromes,” are multi-discipline facilities, including show rings and more.

In addition to the December sales trip, Nancy Wallace reports that several other exciting opportunities have spun out of the trip, including an offer for Dr. Solomon to speak on U.S. veterinary techniques at the University of St. Petersburg Vet School, and an agreement to participate in an international exchange program for veterinarians.

The international marketing program at the Maryland Department of Agriculture exists to assist Marylanders in marketing their products abroad.