Horse Play


Fresh air, lush grass and majestic horses await when 13 farms across central Maryland open their gates on May 11 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association in true winning style — with a horse farm tour.

Willowdale, owned by Dr. Michael Harrison, the association’s president, is one farm that is part of the celebration. The farm covers 188 acres in Butler in Northern Baltimore County, or as some call it, Maryland’s horse country. Along scenic Black Rock Road, Willowdale is home to a farmhouse, stables and acres of meadow encompassed by a blanched fence line, where Harrison boards, foals and raises horses for clients. It’s also home to beef cattle, garden crops from blueberries to asparagus, many dogs and a soon-to-open brewery. East of Willowdale is Bonita Farm in Darlington. Spread over 400 acres, this thoroughbred operation sprawls across rolling green hills with 235 acres of pasture, a 5/8-mile dirt track, a half-mile turf course, steeplechase jumps, an indoor track and a turf course encircling the entire farm. Bonita was once the home of 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testimony; he is now buried on the property. This farm is a tour must-see for race fans; stallions standing at Bonita are Alliance, Dortmund and Kobe’s Back.

Nearby is GreenMount Farm, a family owned and operated Thoroughbred horse farm located in Glyndon. A horse bred at GreenMount, 3-year-old Knicks Go, is on the 2019 Derby trail and was voted Maryland-bred Horse of the Year in February. Knicks Go was named in January one of three finalists for the Eclipse Award (national award for best Thoroughbreds) in the 2-year-old category. Knicks Go is a Maryland-bred.

Also located in Baltimore County’s horse country is Sagamore Farm, which has a rich history connected with Thoroughbred racing. Founded in 1925 by Issac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer, the farm was bequeathed to Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr. for his 21st birthday in 1933 by his mother Margaret, who was Emerson’s daughter. Under Vanderbilt’s legendary guidance the farm was internationally recognized as a premier training and breeding facility for the next half century. The Queen of England kept a broodmare on the property during its heyday.

A member of New York’s wealthy Vanderbilt family, Alfred would become the owner and president of  Pimlico Race Course. He also served at various times as head of the New York Racing Association and the United States Jockey Club.

Since founded, Sagamore Farm has held international recognition as a premier breeding and training ground in the thoroughbred industry. The farm’s most famous equine resident was Native Dancer. Known to the public at large as the Galloping Grey Ghost, Native Dancer went 21 for 22 during his racing career which spanned from 1952-54. In 1953 Native Dancer won both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

In Carroll County, guests can visit the historical Shamrock Farm, established in 1948 by the late Art Rooney, former owner of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Two adjacent farms were eventually purchased, increasing Shamrock’s size to roughly 640 acres. The farm encompasses a six-horse stallion barn with attached breeding shed, a foaling barn and numerous outbuildings and lush green pastures that stretch through the southwest corner of the county. Development is not far away in nearby Mount Airy, Damascus and other once-quiet bergs. But this farm is an oasis — and another destination of interest to racing fans. When it came time to retire the stakes-winning colt, Christopher R, he came to Shamrock Farm.

According to Harrison, the tour is a way for the public to see thoroughbred breeding and racing farms firsthand. It is also a way to support agri-tourism by visiting agricultural businesses in the areas close to the farms. In Baltimore County, for example, Boordy Vineyards will have special wine tastings for tour goers; at Willowdale, Farmacy Brewing will offer guests their new microbrews. In Maryland, farmers are allowed to produce their own brew provided that a percentage of the crops raised on their farm are incorporated into their beer,” Harrison says, adding “We’re excited for people to stop by and see it.”

The MHBA, founded in 1929, encourages and promotes the state’s horse breeding industry. It represents nearly 1,000 breeder-owner members, which include thoroughbred breeders, owners of racehorses, steeplechase and hunt enthusiasts and others involved in the industry, including equine therapists, who are becoming more established and popular. A tour highlighting all of this is the perfect way to honor the occasion, Harrison says. “We wanted to do something special to bring notice to the fact that we’ve been doing these  things for this long. This is our 90th anniversary, so it’s a big deal.”

And, there is the fact that people love horses. “There is something special about horses that give people tremendous amounts of satisfaction and pleasure just by being around them and working with them,” Harrison says.

Horse farms open for the tour are in Baltimore, Harford, Frederick, Cecil and Carroll counties. Tour hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, click here.

Photo credits: Photos from Country Life Farm and Merryland Farm were taken by  Ellen Pons. Photos from Shamrock Farm were taken by Chris Steele. 

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