FALLSTON — It’s just a hop and a skip away from the many car dealerships and shopping centers on Belair Road, and the cars driving by on the highway are audible.
But none of these things are in sight at Country Life Farm. It’s barely off the main road, but its rolling hills and roaming horses take visitors back to Maryland’s rural past.
Country Life Farm is part of a centuries-old Maryland legacy: the state’s horse industry. And co-owner Mike Pons, whose family has operated Country Life since 1933, says it’s a legacy that’s “sort of neglected.”
But with the advent of slots in Maryland, the industry is getting a new life. And a local film maker wants to make it known.
W. Drew Perkins, owner of the nonprofit film company Rubicon Productions, which is based in Baltimore. wasn’t a horse fanatic to begin with. But while filming “Thundering Hooves,” a documentary about steeplechase racing in Maryland, he saw the makings of another horse film.
“It’s a pretty fascinating story, and one that was new to me,” said Perkins. “I had this in the back of my mind for a little while.”
An industry comeback
According to a 2007 report from the American Equestrian Alliance, Maryland has more horses per square mile than any other state in the nation, by a long shot. At that time, Maryland had about 15 horses per square mile; the runner-up, New Jersey, had about 11.
According to a 2005 economic impact survey by Deloitte, the Maryland horse industry has an economic impact of about $1.6 billion and employs more than 14,000 people. The Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, which attracts more than 100,000 spectators each year, was born at Pimlico Race Course.
“It’s a heritage industry for Maryland,” said Pons.
But this heritage industry began to suffer when nearby states started capitalizing on slots.
“Their industries began to flourish because of this additional revenue,” said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. “Horses were leaving Maryland and going to states with more money.”
A 2007 report from Thomas E. Perez, then secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, documented the impact of the surrounding states’ slots.
The average purse at Harrington Raceway in Delaware reached more than $200,000 at that time, up from about $22,000, Perez’s report said. West Virginia experienced a boom in breeding as well, producing 599 foals in 2005 compared to 192 in 1995.
These were two examples in a long list that the report used to illustrate that Maryland’s horse industry was missing out on a major payday from slots. “The money waned for a while” in Maryland, said Pons.
That was the atmosphere when Perkins made his first horse film. Since then, he has seen some changes in the industry. The advent of slots in Maryland has meant bigger purses and better horses at racetracks.
“There’s more positive energy now than when I was doing ‘Thundering Hooves,’” he said.
Breeders are benefiting as well. It hasn’t translated into numbers quite yet, said Goodall, because of the time breeding takes, but the farms have seen a difference.
“I’m getting calls that I haven’t gotten in 10 years,” said Pons. “It’s kind of fun to see these opportunities come around again.”
When the breeding season begins Feb. 14, said Goodall, Maryland should see business coming back. The state has eight new stallions for breeding, she added, and when the economy fully recovers, the industry should see yet another boost.
Weathering the storm
Despite the renewed recent interest in horse racing, it was a much longer story that attracted Perkins’ interest.
“The horses have been around since Maryland was around,” he said. “It has always sort of weathered … the storm.”
The documentary’s focus on the state’s horse racing legacy has attracted supporters like Goodall, of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, and Jay Griswold, a member of the Maryland Horse Industry Board and executive producer of “Racing the Times.”
Griswold got to know Perkins through the filming of “Thundering Hooves,” and thought that the thoroughbred industry needed its own documentary to make Marylanders “more aware of the legacy and how important it is to preserve it and enhance it.”
“It’s a small state, so it can be very cohesive if promoted properly,” he said.
Griswold and others have invested in the film, but it will require more investments to come to fruition.
“It’s a great project, and hopefully we can get enough funding to get it finished,” said Goodall, who talked to Perkins about the idea while he was working on the steeplechase film.
Perkins and his partners have been meeting with various individuals and groups in Maryland associated with horses to discuss the project and garner support. They will soon meet with the Maryland Racing Commission.
There is no existing film or book exclusively about Maryland’s horse history, said Perkins.
“Every time you have people out talking about things and you put them on films, you share stories that get passed down,” he said. “Some of the history I think people ought to at least know. … It’s just a great story.”