The University of Maryland equine studies program provides its students with the knowledge and hands-on experience needed to move on to careers in thoroughbred industry, but there’s much more.
The school has a breeding program, and in early September Maryland’s Best, a 2-year-old Rock Slide gelding owned and trained by Javier Contreras, became its latest graduate when he won a maiden claiming event at Laurel Park.
Maryland’s Best, a $5,000 purchase at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Eastern fall yearling sale, was one of two horses foaled by the university’s breeding program. The other one, who is training at Laurel but hasn’t raced, is Fear The Fire, a Friesan Fire gelding out of the mare Daylight Lassie.
Diamondback Fire, a full brother to Fear the Fire, became the first horse born on campus in nearly 30 years when he was foaled March 8, 2013. He won his debut in September2015 at Timonium during the Maryland State Fair, and has gone on to finish second five times and third once in eight subsequent starts.
In 2015 the breeding program produced Blazing Terp, a colt by Buffum out of Daylight Lassie, and Maryland’s Miracle, a filly by Baltimore Bob out of the mare Amazin. The lone thoroughbred foaled this year is an unnamed colt out of Daylight Lassie by Nicanor, a stakes-placed full brother to ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, born April 1.
“The Nicanor colt is awesome. He’s probably the best-looking colt we’ve had,” said associate professor Dr. Amy Burk, coordinator of the equine studies program in the University of Maryland Animal and Avian Sciences Department. “We’ll try to keep the Nicanor colt until he’s a yearlings so the students can show him in the yearling shows.
“I hope to hold onto him longer until Nicanor’s offspring are doing something and we can sell this guy for a little more money. It would be nice to have one black-type mare for the program. That’s all I want.”
Proceeds from horses sold at auction go directly to the program, which has about 50 students in the introductory course management classes to 20 to 25 in upper-level instruction. Burk said she has 20 to 25 students that are equine specific and another 30 in pre-veterinary study that are equine specific.
Burk was tasked with building an equine breeding program upon her 2001 arrival in Maryland, where she teaches courses in equine management and advises equine studies undergraduates as well as students in the equestrian club and eventing team in addition to overseeing the breeding program.
Students learn all aspects of the breeding process and explore a wide range of topics including anatomy and physiology, nutrition, exercise, law, insurance, facilities, health and disease, and pasture management at the Clarksville facility and on-campus farm.
As a graduate student at Virginia Tech, Burk got experience working at a 420-acre thoroughbred breeding farm in Middleburg, Va. She learned about pedigree analysis and how to show horses and talk about their conformation during the school’s annual yearling sales.
“I think we’re pretty different from other breeding farms,” Burk said. “You’ve got your pregnant mare barn and foaling barn and all these different barns, and we’re trying to create it from scratch on a university-owned farm used for research. We have a couple of smaller paddocks where we’re testing out new warm season grasses or we use them for lame or new horses. We bring horse farm owners out here to show them what a productive pasture looks like and train them how to evaluate pasture quality, and we throw in equine nutrition because it’s important.
“The breeding program has a lot of layers and the training of students is important. I wanted to get the industry involved in the academic program because sometimes there’s a discourse between what is happening in the industry and what you teach students in class from books. There has to be a merge of the two. I think the industry appreciates that, and now we have a lot of industry support.”
Burk said the university is trying to get sponsorships also create new pastures for expansion.
“I’m hopeful we can get to a point where the quality of the racehorses we produce are good enough that they make a decent amount of money at the sale and then the breeders’ fund supplements as much as it can,” she said. “I’m trying to keep financially viable and still teach students, get them internships, and make them better prepared for the work force.”
The seasons to Nicanor and Baltimore Bob were donated by Shamrock Farm in Woodbine, Md. Country Life Farm in Fallston, Md., provided the season to Friesan Fire that produced Diamondback Fire.
Long-time trainer Katy Voss, a board member of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, convinced Marilyn Doetsch to donate Daylight Lassie, who has now produced four foals in the program. Breeders such as Allen and Audrey Murray of Murmur Farm in Darlington, Md., and Northview Stallion Station have donated mares.
“I really appreciate the industry’s support,” Burk said. “Some of those people are so generous, and recently more and more people are helping. We’ve taken students out on the backstretch at Laurel. We’re trying to give students a better impression of racing.”
(Photo of Maryland’s Best by Jim McCue/MJC)