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Home Horse Facts and Tips First Posted: Apr 4,2009Mar 9, 2015

Virginia's Vanishing Breed

Washington Post Article with Images Once Famed for Great Horses, the State Is Losing Large Thoroughbred Farms By Tara Bahrampour Washington Post dated Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In 1973, when Secretariat, a stallion born and raised in Caroline County, Va., won the Triple Crown, the state was a regular contender in the nation's highest-profile races.

Virginia has been famous as a producer of great horses since before the Civil War. But this month, not one Virginia horse ran in the Kentucky Derby; in fact, no Virginia horse has raced in the Derby since 1996. Their absence is a sign of steady decline in an industry that was once a hallmark of the state.

In its heyday in the 1960s, Virginia produced 1,400 thoroughbred foals a year, the fourth-highest number in the country. Today, it produces about 350. (In 2007, Maryland farms produced about 800 foals.) And in Northern Virginia, most large farms, meaning those that bring forth more than 20 foals a year, have stopped producing at that rate; the number that do can be counted on one hand.

"It is disappointing to me," said Edward P. Evans, whose Spring Hill Farm in Fauquier County is one of the last large thoroughbred farms in the state. When he started there 40 years ago, he was one of many, he said. "They have just about disappeared in Virginia."

Virginia's hopes to break its dry spell were dashed last month when one of Evans's horses, Quality Road, hurt his foot and dropped out of the Kentucky Derby. Fans excited by the prospect of a home-state winner had created Facebook and Twitter pages for him and likened his participation in the race to having one's home team in the Super Bowl. The 3-year-old horse had recently scored an impressive win in the Florida Derby and was considered a favorite to win in Kentucky.

But Quality Road was unable to race at the Preakness, and he won't make the Belmont Stakes next month, although another of Evans's horses, Charitable Man, might race there.

Virginia has thriving fox-hunting clubs and is home to steeplechase events such as the Virginia Gold Cup. But many Virginia breeders have moved their operations elsewhere to avoid encroaching development and to benefit from higher "breeders funds" offered by states such as Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida.

The funds are a percentage of the state's intake from gaming. Breeders say the discrepancy stems from an aversion to gambling among many Virginia legislators.

A 1979 ballot measure to allow betting on horse races failed, prompting many breeders to join the exodus from Virginia. The measure eventually passed in 1988, and now one cent of every dollar wagered on horse racing in the state goes to breeders.

But betting in Virginia is still more restricted than in neighboring states, and breeders receive far less money here, said Glenn Petty, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association. A horse in Maryland or West Virginia can "draw in" several times what a breeder in Virginia would get for the same horse, through each state's breeders fund, he noted.

Part of the problem is access. Virginia has nine betting venues. The closest for Northern Virginia residents are two sites in Richmond, prompting many fans to travel to off-track venues in Maryland or West Virginia.

Petty estimated that Northern Virginia loses about $100 million a year over state lines in gambling revenue for breeders. "It's not a coincidence that we're not producing as many horses, and as many good horses," he said.

The decision by many breeders to move their operations has affected other aspects of the local economy, Petty said, citing lost revenue involving trucks, tractors, fences, blacksmiths, feed, veterinarians and caretakers, and tourism revenue. But, he said, many Virginia lawmakers still oppose gambling.

"It's a $500 million industry [in Virginia], and yet the gaming that fuels a lot of it is seen as problematic," he said. "You see West Virginia and Maryland, if you'll pardon the expression, racing past us.

"A guy looking to get into the business, as a business guy I can't look you in the eye and tell you to breed in Virginia - it just doesn't make sense."

Evans said he doubted the situation would change soon, adding, "I've been here 40 years, and the Virginia government has never done the right thing."

But Frank Shipp, president of Lazy Lanes Farm on the Loudoun-Fauquier county border, said Internet and telephone betting have recently allowed more Virginians to bet from home, increasing the breeders funds, and he expected that to continue.

Shipp blamed the decrease in major foaling farms on changes in society. "You have to have individuals who are motivated to own that kind of land and make that kind of commitment to breed thoroughbreds," he said. "We're farther and farther away from an agricultural-based economy."

In Northern Virginia, encroaching development has also threatened horse culture. Fox hunters have pushed to preserve green space, but for many, development has put a damper on a way of life.

"Patchwork subdivisions and residential development is very tough on what we like to refer to as the neighborly enjoyment of the open space," said Matthew Mackay-Smith, 76, a fox hunter and endurance rider from White Post in Clarke County, recalling the days of freely riding on others' land. "There were long customs where, if you knew your neighbor, you were mutually accepting of each other."

Now, he said, riders encounter "No Trespassing" signs in areas where they used to roam.

"Those signs are saying, 'You are no longer welcome.' "

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Tagged: animals, Fauquier County, horses, State news.

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