By Katherine O. Rizzo
When you ask the majority of Marylanders to describe a racehorse, the response typically is all about the Thoroughbred. Whether on the flat track or over fences, the Thoroughbred has been considered “Maryland’s Horse” for centuries. However, Maryland is home to another successful racing industry, harness racing, with over 1100 races being held yearly at two tracks within the state as well as three county fairs with special live racing days. Harness racing and Standardbred racehorses also have deep roots in Maryland’s history dating back to the 17th century when races took place on the country roads that intersected rural Maryland.
|Harness Racing Lingo:
Pacers: horses that race by moving the legs on the same side of their body in unison; typically there are more pacing races due to the fact that pacers tend to go faster
Trotters: horses that race by moving the diagonal legs in unison
Breaking: when a horse goes “off-stride,” which means it starts to gallop and thus must move out of the way and lose ground until it can recover its gait
Race Bike or Sulky: the carriage where the driver sits being pulled by the horse
Driver: the person who is controlling the horse from the sulky
Second Tier: horses that start from behind the others
Hopples: equipment that is used to help the horse maintain its gait
PM: Pari-mutuel, which is a betting race
The Harness Horse
Here in North America, harness racing is limited to Standardbreds; however, in Europe, French and Russian Trotters are also used. The rare Orlov Trotter is raced in Russia as well.
The Standardbred was developed in America with bloodlines going back to 18th-century England and trace back to the Thoroughbred Messenger. He was a gray stallion imported to the U.S. in 1788 and he sired several flat track horses. Most notably for the harness racing industry, he produced the great-grandson Hambletonian 10, who was foaled in 1849 and is considered the foundation sire for the Standardbred. Hambletonian 10 was out of a Norfolk Trotter mare.
In 1879, the National Association of Trotting Horse Breeders created the breed’s official registry and the name “Standardbred” was coined due to the “standard” requirement that the breed be able to trot or pace a mile within two minutes and 30 seconds.
Breeding in Maryland
Today in Maryland, there are four commercial breeding farms as well as several other family-operated breeding farms. According to Sharon Roberts, vice president of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association (CSOA), the top two commercial breeding farms in the state are Winbak Farm in Chesapeake City and Fox Den Farm in Union Bridge.
Joe and JoAnn Thomson founded Winbak in 1991 as an expansion to their Pennsylvania location. The farm was originally the famed Windfield Farm where the Thoroughbred Northern Dancer was born; however, the purchase contract prohibited them from using the name so it was shortened to “Win” and then “bak” was added using the first letter of each of their kids’ names. “Maryland is just a great place to raise horses,” Joe Thomson said. “The land, climate, everything, really.”
Winbak currently stands eight stallions at its Maryland location: five pacers and three trotters. As of July 7 of this year, Winbak get have 994 wins and earnings of $7,742,505. Winbak is currently the second-ranked breeder in the country behind Hanover Farms of Pennsylvania. Thomson was inducted into the Living Hall of Fame at the Harness Racing Museum in 2014.
Fox Den Farm was first built in 1964 but was not incorporated by Linda and Tom Winebrener until 1967. Although the farm started primarily as a show hunter and foxhunting stable, the Standardbred clients quickly took over and today Fox Den is a complete Standardbred facility that stands seven stallions (four pacers and three trotters), foals mares and raises yearlings.
The Winebreners also started the sales company The Chesapeake Yearling Sale and the sales agency Fox Den Agency. This year alone, 17 fillies and 26 colts were born on the farm with 33 of those foals being sired by stallions standing at Fox Den. Tom Winebrener was recently appointed to the Maryland Racing Commission by Governor Hogan.
As for Maryland as a whole, in the 2014 breeding season (with foals born in 2015), there were over 35 stallions standing in the state, spread over 14 farms. These stallions covered over 125 mares.
A Family Affair
There are over 80 family-owned and operated farms across Maryland that act as training stables. “Standardbred breeding and training is a family-oriented operation,” Roberts stated. “Standardbreds have a more even temperament allowing owners to be more hands-on.” Like many other harness racing families, the whole Roberts family is involved in the sport. “My husband Bib has been an owner, trainer and driver for many years and our son Jonathan is a third generation horseman and driver.” They own and operate a 20-acre farm in Charles County and stand two stallions at Harris Paints on the Eastern Shore.
Dan Myer, president of the Maryland Standardbred Breeders Association (MSBA), also commented on the family nature of the sport. “ My wife read recently that ‘Thoroughbred racing is the sport of kings, Standardbred racing is the sport of the people.’ I think that is very accurate.” Myer added that it is easy to become very hands-on in this sport and to learn how to exercise one’s own horses and even to drive. “The U.S. Trotting Association offers a driving school and we hold races restricted to amateur drivers.”
Trainer Dan Bittle of Yankeeland Farms in Frederick added that is it not uncommon to see a horse owned, trained and driven by the same person. He also feels that the outreach and support that both COSA and MSBA have provided to horsemen through the years has kept the industry going.
The Retired Racehorse
Like Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds begin their racing careers as early as two years old. It is not uncommon to see horses racing at eight or even 10 years old, but Standardbreds can race until they are as old as 15. They also, like Thoroughbreds, find themselves in all kinds of post-racing careers.
Maybee stated, “Standardbreds are one of the most overlooked equine breeds, but are gaining popularity because of their intelligence, demeanor, abilities and their eager-to-please attitudes.” They are one of the most sought-after breeds for mounted patrol because they are not flighty, aim to please and are known for their good feet, something Maybee pointed out is important when patrolling city streets.
“When singer Whitney Houston passed away, the funeral was held in Newark and the Newark Mounted Unit was photographed standing along the curb behind the hearse,” Maybee remarked. “They get their new mounts through the Standardbred Retirement Foundation.”
Allaboard Jules, renamed Sgt. York by the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon, was a retired harness horse bred in New Jersey who represented the riderless horse for President Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
During the 2010 World Equestrian Games held in Kentucky, Whiz Bang and Sea of Gray performed various dressage movements representing the breed. In 2008, Whiz Bang was the first Standardbred to earn a U.S. Dressage Federation award when he was named First Level Champion. In 2010, he earned USDF awards for Second Level Champion and Second Level Musical Freestyle Champion. Sea of Grey was the 2008 All Breed Training Level Champion and in 2009 was First Level Champion.
Here in Maryland, Horse Lovers United, Inc., based on the Eastern Shore, finds homes for many of these retired harness horses. And nearby, there is the Standardbred Retirement Program (New Jersey) and New Vocations (Ohio), which both specifically work with former harness horses to retrain them for new careers.
Last year, for the first time, the Standardbred was highlighted at the Maryland State Fair with its own Standardbred-only show, demonstrating the breed’s use in the hunter and jumper rings. The show returns to the Maryland State Fair later this month.
The Heyday of Harness Racing
As with the Thoroughbred racing industry, the harness racing industry within the state has had its share of ups and downs. During the late 1940s and 1950s, residents had four tracks to choose from.
In September of 1947, the Maryland General Assembly (MGA) granted harness racing licenses to Ocean Downs, Rosecroft Raceway and in addition, to Baltimore Raceway and Freestate Raceway, originally called Laurel Raceway. MGA authorized up to 100 days per year of harness racing with no more than 20 racing days at one track.
Founded by Dick Hutchinson, Laurel Raceway held its first racing season in 1948. It became the first track to allow pari-mutuel wagering on a harness race. Laurel broke several records its first season including the opening night attendance of 12,000. Total mutuel handle was $3,703,949 and the highest attendance overall was 16,000 later in the season. With its first year’s success, the purse money and the number of seats were increased and other improvements were made. Racing excitement continued to grow until the late 1970s.
In March of 1976, a fire destroyed the clubhouse and grandstand and Laurel was sold to Greta and Joseph Shamy the following month. Mike Brown, vice president of the track, was later indicted for arson. By 1979, the track was reported to be $6 million in debt. That same year, Joseph Shamy was arrested for embezzling funds to pay off personal debts. He was later convicted of racketeering and embezzling $1.2 million from the track, which ended up defaulting on its National Bank of Washington loan.
In 1980, Frank DeFrancis purchased the track from the bank and changed the name from Laurel Raceway to Freestate Raceway. DeFrancis, who later became part-owner of Laurel Park and Pimlico Racecourse, rebuilt the grandstand, created a drivers’ lounge and started promoting the track under the slogan “Where Fun Comes in First.” He later persuaded MGA to lower the tax on the track’s handle.
Starting in 1982, Freestate hosted the Potomac Stakes, which became Maryland’s most successful harness race. Each year, attendance and the handle rose dramatically and in 1984, a record $1,094,054 was wagered on the night of the Potomac Stakes. In the track’s first six years under DeFrancis’ ownership, average attendance increased from 4,477 to 5,453.
The success of the track attracted the Messenger Stakes, which was held at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, New York until the track closed in 1988. The Messenger Stakes is part of the Triple Crown of Harness Racing and stayed at Freestate until the track closed in 1990 after the death of DeFrancis in 1989.
Racing in Baltimore
The buzz over harness racing throughout Maryland created the demand to build a track closer to a major city. Thus, on July 7, 1950, Baltimore Raceway opened its doors just northeast of downtown Baltimore. The track was considered state-of-the-art for the time and cost $1.5 million to build. It sat on a 150-acre site and boasted a steel and concrete 5,000-seat grandstand that was 270 feet long and 153 feet deep. The clubhouse could seat up to 600 people on the second floor of the grandstand. The parking lot could handle up to 4,500 cars and the stable area consisted of 540 stalls with an additional 64 stalls in the paddock area.
One of Baltimore Raceway’s unique features was the 100-foot wide chute, which allowed better starts for shorter races to be staged on a straightway. It also had an elaborate lighting system of 66 light poles with 154,000 watts of illumination.
Handle and attendance at the track began to decline rather quickly, however, and the track was forced to close in 1962, just 12 years after it opened. Baltimore Trotting Races, Inc. was reorganized into BTR Realty, Inc. in 1965 and the site was transformed into the Pulaski Industrial Park, which still stands today.
Rosecroft Raceway was one of two tracks still in operation to receive licenses back in 1949. It was first owned by trainer and breeder William E. Miller and quickly became the political and social center for Prince George’s County. In the early 1950s, average attendance was more than 7,000 a day.
During the days of the Millers, several segments of the Breeders Crown were held at Rosecroft. The Messenger Stakes was also moved to Rosecroft from 1990 until 1995 and Rosecroft became the home of the Potomac Stakes from 1990 through 1992.
The facility remained in the Miller family until 1987 when it was sold to Mark Vogel who made a few management mistakes; the company went into bankruptcy. Rosecroft was then sold to Weisman’s Colt Enterprises in 1991, the same year the grandstand caught fire. It was rebuild in 1993 at a cost of $3.6 million.
After losing millions on the venture, the Weisman family sold the track to Cloverleaf Enterprises in 1995. Cloverleaf tried to sell the track several times in the early 2000s but potential buyers were put off by lawsuits over simulcast racing rights and the lack of slots in Maryland, an issue that was also greatly hurting the Thoroughbred racehorse industry.
After filing for bankruptcy again, Rosecroft closed in 2010. The next year, Penn National Gaming swooped in with the hope that a casino would be granted for the location and the facility reopened in 2011. Live racing returned to Rosecroft the following year.
Presently, Rosecroft offers 54 days of racing on Tuesdays and Saturdays from March through June and then again in from mid-September through mid-December. On average, there are 12 races a night at Rosecroft.
Racing by the Sea
Also opening in 1949 was Ocean Downs Raceway near Ocean City, which was then owned by Ocean Downs Racing Association (ODRA). The popularity of harness racing at the time did not seem to fill the track’s seats due to its remote location, however, and after two years ODRA considered switching to Thoroughbred racing. The track remained open to harness racing only and in 1986, under pressure from the Maryland Racing Commission, Ocean Downs’ president John Howard Burbage sold his 68% stake in the track to Rosecroft Raceway. The track was renamed Delmarva Downs in 1987, the same year that Mark Vogel bought Rosecroft, and he thus took over Delmarva Downs as well.
Delmarva continued to lose money, and was closed in May of 1995 while a sales negotiation was in the works between Bally Entertainment and Cloverleaf, with the help of a loan from Pimlico and Laurel Park president Joe DeFrancis. The deal was turned down and instead, Bally Entertainment lent Cloverleaf $10.5 million to buy both tracks allowing Delmarva to reopen in July. The track’s name switched back to Ocean Downs the following year.
In 1997, Bally Entertainment bought Ocean Downs from Cloverleaf and started a civil war within the Maryland racing community by ending simulcasting of Thoroughbred races at the track. A new simulcast agreement was approved by MRC in April of 1998 with the two different racing communities working together.
The track switched hands once again in 2000 when William Rickman, who had offered to buy both Ocean Downs and Rosecroft in 1997, bought Ocean Downs from Bally Entertainment. In 2008, after the voters approved the referendum to allow slot machines at five casinos, a license was awarded to Ocean Downs as the only applicant for the license allotted to Worcester County. The casino opened in January of 2011 and Ocean Downs began a huge renovation including a 50,000-square-foot expansion, table games and a new restaurant.
Currently, Ocean Downs holds 48 race days on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays from mid-June through early September. They hold an average 10 races a night.
Slots Boost Maryland-bred Racing
According to Gina Maybee of CSOA, Maryland residents own approximately 52% of the horses racing in Maryland. Another 5% are Maryland-sired. “One of the most important priorities for Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association and the Maryland Standardbred Breeders Association in contract negotiations with the tracks in Maryland has always been protecting the Maryland horsemen,” she said. And like the Thoroughbred industry in Maryland, the Standardbred industry has Maryland-bred incentive funds as well.
The various breeding programs are centered on the stallions and where they stand. “In Maryland we have entry priority in overnight races for Maryland-sired and we have bonuses to the owners of those horses,” Maybee added. “This is creating an interest in Maryland-sired horses.” There are also Breeder Awards for two- and three-year-olds that are based on what those horses make during Maryland-sired stakes program races.
And many in the industry agree that the additional revenue generated from slots has caused the harness racing and Standardbred breeding industry within the state to take an upswing. “We had an all-time low back in 2008 in terms of breeding but now we have far more stallions standing in Maryland than we did then,” Roberts pointed out.
“The industry as a whole across the country has gone down in the last few years but not here in Maryland,” Bittle added. “Here we have grown.”
In the early 2000s, Fox Den Farm considered closing its doors with only about 24 mares foaling each year. “It had gotten really bad,” Tom Winebrener stated. “But now, were are back up to our numbers from around 2000, foaling about 50 mares a year at the farm and breeding around 100.” Winebrener also remarked how slots revenue has improved the actual tracks as well, using Ocean Downs’ expansion and casino as an example.
The incentives for Maryland-bred horses are greatly promoting the breeding, training and racing of the horses here with in the state, thus helping to grow the economy as well. “Twenty percent of the slots revenue allotted to the racing industry goes to the Standardbreds. We take 11% of that and put it into our breeding awards program and 89% into overnight races,” Myer explained. This 20% of the slots revenue is still far less than what nearby states allot, with some states offering a 50/50 split between harness and Thoroughbred tracks and others allowing the tracks with casinos to keep the full amount.
All things considered, the Standardbred and harness racing industries here in Maryland are certainly healthy and continuing to grow. More stallions are standing in the state, more mares are being bred to them and live racing continues to attract spectators. This year, a new race day has even been added to the calendar with live racing at the Prince George’s County Fair.