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Local Horse Breeders Look To Diversify
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May 19, 2011
After an afternoon of collecting hay in a field adjacent to his horse track at Bonita Farm, Bill Boniface has little time to rest. Next, he’s off to a nearby barn, where he moves on to the grueling task of unloading the last bales of the day.
Bembry: “How many bales are you producing?
“We only got 342 off of that deal. We made 7,500 the year before last. Last year was terrible – the weather never cooperated. We couldn’t get four dry days.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Boniface’s only responsibility at Bonita Farms was to breed horses. In 1983, a Bonita Farms-produced Preakness winner – Deputed Testamony—helped sustain the Harford County facility.
The downturn in the economy has led to fewer horses being bred in Maryland. And in an act of survival, many breeding farms have had to change the way they operate.
Bonita Farms has become the “7-11” of horse farms: there you can breed a horse, purchase hay and even pick up a case of wine from the vineyard that’s been planted on the grounds.
“We decided that we had more land than we needed. We put some of the land into hay, to try to save money in buying hay. The startup costs are excessive because you have to buy the equipment. But eventually it’ll pay off for us. The same thing with planting the grapes. We sold 100 cases in 2009, which helped us get through some lean months.”
Until recently, Boniface had zero experience in growing grapes. Today, he brags about the wine he’s producing under the label Chateau Bonita.
“Everyone tasted it has been impressed. These people have bee in the business for awhile…It’s a lot like breeding horses. You pick the clone you want then you try to make them grow. Three years later, you find out you have a good wine like you find out if you have a good horse. Overall, I think we hit a home run.”
Three miles away, Allen Murray maneuvers his golf cart around Murmur Farms, the 133-acre business he owns with his wife, Audrey. Stepping out of the cart nearing the breeding shed, Murray walks over to one of the aging stars of his farm—1996 Preakness winner Louis Quatorze.
“He’s a nice horse. He won 2.2 million, besides winning the Preakness. He beat a lot of good horses. You win 2.2 million, you win a lot of races.”
Those were in the more prosperous times for the Murrays, who today operating a breeding farm that in the past five years has lost two thirds of its business.
“Until 2005 to 2006 we were going great guns here. I know a lot of people who no longer own horses, got out of the breeding business. A lot of our clients just plain stopped breeding horses. The discretionary money is not there, and that’s what we all depend on.”
As business began to fade, the Murray’s felt it necessary to expand. They purchased another 100 acres of land nearby and plowed over corn fields to create Berkley Farm, where the Murray’s now train horses
“We break horses for other people. We’re breaking 30 horses for other people now. We get six or eight of our own. I think they needed another facility like this in MD. Horses come in almost weekly. We have 20 other people who said they want to send horses. I hope this continues.”
Taking on a new business has meant longer days for the Murrays, who split their time between the two farms. As Berkley Farm employees hose down a horse that was caked with dirt in the site’s main stable, Audrey Murray discusses the changes that she and her husband have experienced by adding a training center.
“It’s a big difference. We have a lot of responsibility. It’s a big thing. But we breed for other people, and that’s a challenge, too. Foaling mares, and taking care of foals. Both Farms have a lot of responsibility.”
In addition to barns, the Murray’s decided to build a 5/8 of a mile track on the location of Berkley Farms.
Before the horses are taking for sprints around the dirt track, Allen Murray explains that each is required to walk through the starting gate that is set up at the track’s entrance.
“It teaches them not to be afraid of the gate. Eventually when they go to the race track, they have to walk in there and break out of it to race.”
As the horses come to the final turn, Murray keeps a sharp eye on their strides.
“All Three of these horses are going separately. Some time, we gallop in sets together, sometimes we gallop separately, sometimes we gallop horses up behind other horses to get sand kicked in their face. We try to teach them everything they will experience at the race track.”
The addition of the track has been instrumental in the Murray’s bringing more business to their satellite farm.
“Once we started building barns, I thought this would be a good place to build a race track. That part worked out well, better than the breeding farm right now.
I think every farm in Maryland is doing the same thing. They have to. They can’t’ make that breeding horses now – with the economy so bad, we depend on extra money that people have.”
The temptation for many horse breeders has been to follow the dollars to bordering states. In Darlington, the Murrays are still fully entrenched. Taking on a new business has meant longer days for the Murrays, who split their time between the two farms.
“I love racing in Maryland. And there was no way I was going to move into Pennsylvania for my business. I lived here all my life,… I’m happy here, and I love racing here. I think we’re going to come back strong.”
I’m Jerry Bembry, reporting in Darlington, for 88-1, WYPR.
Next on “Down The Stretch,” WYPR’s Mary Rose Madden looks at the dwindling numbers of bettors at local racetracks. That’s at 10 minutes before the hour. To hear any of the segments of our series, simply log on to our website, www.wypr.org and click on WYPR Newsroom.
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