Why Maryland Horse Racing Matters

Nov 1st 2008 12:03 pm |

Originally published November 1, 2008. Updated April 1, 2015

The slow death of racing in the great state of Maryland appears to be making one last gasp for survival. On Tuesday citizens will vote on whether to allow 15,000 slots machines into the state. It is hoped that slots will do for thoroughbred racing in Maryland what it has done for Delaware and Pennsylvania. Another development, and perhaps the more promising one, is the appearance of Halsey Minor on the scene. We all know Halsey from his recent attempt to purchase Hialeah from the recalcitrant John Brunetti. Now that the Hialeah deal appears dead, Minor is making a play to take over Magna (owners of Laurel and Pimlico). He is adamantly opposed to slots and believes that racing as a stand alone product, if given the right resources, can be a success (see his recent comments on the Bug Boys blog).

So why should we as race fans care – why does racing in Maryland matter? An important question as its future hangs in the balance on Tuesday. Many of us know about the great races, tracks, horses, and people that have made their mark on American thoroughbred history in Maryland – these are all reasons to hope for the continuation of high class racing in the state. What you might not know is that Maryland can trace its history with the thoroughbred back to the 18th century. It has one of the deepest historical connections to racing and breeding in the country.

The Belair Stud Farm is located just outside of Bowie, Maryland about 15 miles east of Washington D.C. Belair Stud is to the American Thoroughbred as Independence Hall is to the American Government. Racehorses were being bred at Belair years before Daniel Boone “discovered” the bluegrass of Kentucky. Horses were bred to race at Belair starting in 1747 and thoroughbred breeding endured there until the 1950s – three centuries of producing horses for the races. The historical marker that once stood outside of Belair claimed (right): “Belair Stud Farm blood flows in the veins of almost every American racehorse of distinction.” While most of us think of Kentucky as the center of the American throughoughbred, Maryland has deeper historical roots the the “Bluegrass State.”

William Woodward Sr., Belair’s last private owner, inherited the farm from his Uncle, James T. Woodward, who purchased the legendary farm in 1898. Woodward bred two Triple Crown winners (Omaha and Gallant Fox), four English classic winners, and seven American champions. His tenure as the owner of Belair stands as one of the most successful breeding operations in American history.

Image: William Woodward on the cover of Time Magazine, August 7, 1939. Read the article here.

Woodward, in addition to being a breeder of champions, was also an historian of the turf. In 1921, Woodward presented a lecture to the Maryland Historical Society titled: “The Thoroughbred Horse and Maryand”. The entire text of the lecture was published in the Maryland Historical Magazine and is available online at Google Books. It is exhaustive and detailed work with many an interesting tidbit about breeding during Woodward’s era so it is worth a look.

I have compiled a few interesting clips from his lecture that speak specifically to the rich tradition and significance of the thoroughbred in Maryland history:

…Marylanders, with the racing end so highly developed, should take a primary interest in breeding, for Maryland has from earliest days imported the best, has raised the best, has sent out the best, and has provided foundation stock whose progeny have lasted for well over one hundred and fifty years. That is a community industry well worth while, one of importance to any State, one which the citizens should take interest in generally, and one which aids in accumulating wealth for a State, through the profitable and honorable employment of many, many individuals…”

“…It is a pleasure to go over the first volume of the American Stud Book and to pick out the great horses of the time, and to find, time after time, the name of a new breeder or owner in Maryland…the breeding industry was in the early days remarkably well diversified in the various farms of the State, principally, of course, in and about Annapolis, Prince George’s County and Baltimore County, and somewhat on the Eastern Shore…”

Belair Stables in 1974
(Maryland Historical Trust)

One of Belair’s first and most significant mares was Selima who was imported to the “colonies” between 1750 and 1752 by Benjamin Tasker – the brother-in-law of Belair’s original owner. Selima was by the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation sires of the breed. She produced ten influential foals while at Belair. (The Selima Stakes, once an important stake for juvenile fillies named in honor of the Belair mare, was canceled this year.) Here is how Woodward described the influence of Selima on American racing in 1921:

…Selima is the female ancestor of the great horse Hanover through her daughter Stella; Calypso, her great-granddaughter, is the fourth dam of Enquirer. Had Selima not lived the great brood mare Aerolite, dam of Spendthrift, would not have lived. Spendthrift is the male progenitor of Man o’ War. Selima, through her son, Partner, is in the pedigree of American Eclipse. Her son Ariel was the sire of the sixth dam of Lexington. The great Commando line of the present day and all its descendants — Colin, Peter Pan, Peter Quince, Celt, etc., and their descendants; Tryster, the best two-year-old of last year; the fine mare Prudery, and Miss Joy this year and the great Morvich, and many others would never have existed, for they got the blood of Selima imported to Maryland….”

…Let me leave a parting word with you. Do everything you can to protect the thoroughbred. Be advocates of sport, true and clean, good for those who participate, for those who look on, and for those who read about it; for in this way the cause of the best of animals is promoted and is protected. Cherish the thoroughbred and love him for his many-sided and stalwart character. It is worthy of your affections.”

Woodward’s words have resonance today. Whatever might happen with the slots vote on Tuesday or Halsey Minor’s bid for Magna, I think there is one thing that most can agree on: the permanent loss of significant racing in Maryland would be a blow for the sport. Historical continuity is what makes racing unique. Racing needs to do more than simply survive in Maryland – it is imperative that flourishes in a way that reflects the state’s long and proud tradition of high class racing.


William Woodward, “The Thoroughbred Horse and Maryland,” Maryland Historical Magazine, June 1922

Edward L. Bowen, Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders (Eclipse Press, 2003) — Includes a chapter on William Woodward

Maryland Historical Trust has digitized the historic sites nominations for Belair Stables and the Belair Mansion. Both contain detailed history of both sites and images. Use search term “belair” on this page: http://www.mdihp.net/cfm/index.cfm. The Library of Congress also has digitized a copy of the Historic American Building Survey for Belair Stables

Belair Stables and Mansion is now a museum and historical site

Current historical marker for Belair Stables

Check out these recent posts on the upcoming slots vote in Maryland:
That’s Amore Stables
Owning Racehorses

Hope everyone had a great Breeders Cup. I am with Steve Haskin in feeling that the additional races are not so bad after all (How great was it to see Richard Migliore win a BC race?). I am still totally against the separation of the sexes and the renaming of the Distaff. Racing missed a perfect opportunity with Zenyatta. Considering her probable return next year she would have been an compelling avenue to get people excited about following a superstar into 2009. Unfortunately, her race was relegated to Friday and very few witnessed her unbelievable performance (as well as the other great performances by the fillies and mares). Message to NTRA, ESPN, etc: Market the Fillies and Mares they race longer and have story lines just as interesting as the boys!

I hope to post a few more times before the end of the year but have some distractions from my “real job” upcoming and have a few things I would like to do with the Colin’s Ghost site. I think the first year of the blog has been tremendously successful and I appreciate all of those who take the time to read and comment.

Bummed about the cancellation of the Laurel Futurity, DeFrancis Dash, and the Selima this year. That day at Laurel had been – for the last few years – my final track excursion for the year.

Thanks for Reading and Good Luck!

Filed in Maryland racing history,Selima,thoroughbred racing history,Woodward, William

One Response to “Why Maryland Horse Racing Matters”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks you for your excellent piece. Today is the day, no slots means no racing in Maryland. Have raced our horses at Lrl Pim and the history of the state is incomparable really.
    Am nuts over the industry and the industry needs to be more welcoming to new owners and breeders and not to mall developers.
    M. Byl