New Dawn for Maryland Standardbreds
(first appeared in the August 2015 issue of The Equiery)
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
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
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.
Miss Wynnfield (Wynnfield Scamp x Wynnfield
Molly), owned and bred by Pam Polk of Berlin, was one of the hundreds
of Standardbred foals born this year in Maryland.
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
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.”
Three riders aboard their retired harness
horses get ready to compete in the first all-Standardbred horse show,
held at last year’s Maryland State Fair.
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.
The retired harness horse Allaboard Jules, renamed
Sgt. York, at the funeral procession for President Ronald Reagan
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.
Opening night at Rosecroft Raceway: May 27, 1949 (photographer
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
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
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.
Maryland Horse Industry Board members
and guests in the renovated grandstand at
Rosecroft Raceway last
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 Throughbred 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