Longtime horseman Bill Boniface fully supports recent changes to revive the Maryland horseracing industry. He particularly likes a measure that awards a $500,000 bonus to the connections of a Maryland-bred Preakness winner. He would like to see one amendment, however.
“I asked the guy who was working on that bill, ‘Can we make it retroactive?’” Boniface recalled with a laugh.
The vintage Boniface barb had a special point, given that he bred, trained and co-owned the last local Preakness hero, Deputed Testamony, in 1983. If the victory remains Boniface’s seminal accomplishment, the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame has deemed it just one of many.
The MDSAHOF selected Boniface to receive the John F. Steadman Lifetime Achievement Award, given to a Maryland resident whose lifetime career in sports has brought honor and distinction to the state and its citizenry. The award ceremony will take place Nov. 8 at Martin’s West in Baltimore.
For Boniface, the honor bears a special meaning. Steadman, the longtime Baltimore Sun sports columnist, worked for decades with Sun racing editor William Boniface, the trainer’s dad.
“Well, I don’t know that I’m worthy of it, but I appreciate it,” Boniface said.
The selection committee found worth in a distinguished career that has featured 20 major winners of 10 graded stakes, the Haskell, Manhattan, Ohio Derby and Michigan Derby among them. But for Oliver Twist’s obstructed 1995 stretch run, Boniface might have had a second Preakness score.
Thrilled and surprised by the Steadman Award, Boniface typically diffused the praise beyond himself and Bonita Farm, his family-owned operation in Darlington.
“What’s significant about this award to me is that they recognized horse racing as a major sport in the state of Maryland,” Boniface said. “Because, to me, horse racing is the greatest game played outdoors. There are very few people who can buy a football team or a baseball team, but there are a lot of people who can buy a horse or a part of a horse and have a chance to win a Super Bowl. That’s the great part about the game.”
No Maryland-bred has won the Preakness in 35 years, Boniface said, because large, mega-funded outfits increasingly outmuscle smaller ones.
“Ten percent of the trainers have 90 percent of the good horses, and they dominate the classics,” Boniface said. “I’ve always said there’s a lot of good horsemen and women in Maryland, but I think they’re intimidated by trying to go against these heavy-hitting guys. You know, you’ve got to be in it to win it.”
First awarded in 1997, the Steadman has honored one other horse trainer – King T. Leatherbury in 2003. Eight other horse-racing principals have gained induction to the Hall: jockeys Buddy Ensor (1968), Paddy Smithwick (’70), Sam Boulmetis (’74), Joe Aitcheson Jr. (’75), Charlie Fenwick (’88), Phil Grove (’94) and Mario Pino (2012) and Thoroughbred titan Native Dancer (’14), the only non-human enshrined.
At 76, Boniface still makes the rounds at 5:30 each morning, for Bonita remains a bustling venture: The 400-acre farm can breed, board, foal, break, train and retire your racehorse. And the 2018 addition of Santa Anita Derby-G1 winner Dortmund (joining Alliance and Kobe’s Back) has brought new energy to the stallion ranks.
“You hope that one of them is going to be the next Northern Dancer,” Boniface said. “All horsemen live in hope and die in despair, but the hope part is good.”
He said he was hopeful, even confident, about Deputed Testamony 35 years ago even after a bad shipping trip led to a poor outing in the Blue Grass Stakes and derailed him from Kentucky Derby contention. Eyeing the Preakness, Boniface brought the horse home – but not to rest.
A week before the Preakness, Boniface ran him in a small stakes in Philadelphia, where he won and “came out of it confident, like a million dollars.” Boniface added, “A lot of people said it was unorthodox to run him that close but, hell, the old days we used to run them every three days.”
Deputed Testamony lived to 32 and is buried at Bonita.
“He was a very underrated horse – to reporters,” Boniface said. “As a 2-year-old, he set a track record in Meadowlands, and reporters said it was because the track was frozen. Then, when he won the Preakness [as part of a 14-1 coupled entry], everybody said he won because the track was muddy. But what a lot of people lose sight of is, he came back a year later in the City of Baltimore Handicap, and he set a track record on the fast track going a mile and a 16th in 1:404⁄5. That record still stands. You know how many times they’ve run a mile and a 16th at Pimlico in the last 35 years?” Boniface paused, and with a catch in his voice added, “He just was a hell of a horse.”
Boniface has been infatuated with Thoroughbreds – “the most magnificent animal on the planet” – most of his life. He went from exercise rider to jockey as a teen and, after four years in the military, from assistant trainer to trainer. “I got the bug and just never left it,” he said.
He doesn’t understand how the sport – and the animals who star in it – have lost their allure. “It’s crazy to me,” he said. “Way back in the day, 90 percent of the 16-year-old boys and girls in the country had ridden a horse. Today, 98 percent have driven a car, but maybe only 10 percent have ridden a horse – or even seen one.”
Boniface chuckled softly, said his wife, Joan, accuses him of telling too many stories. Then he told one more.
He recalled teaming with friend Jim McKay, the ABC Wide World of Sports legend, to create the Maryland Million in 1986, which has become the state’s second-biggest racing day of the year.
“The second year was a big day for me. I won three races, and it was the first time a trainer had won three $100,000 races in one day,” he said. It also was a big day for McKay, who won the Juvenile with homebred Sean’s Ferrari, named for McKay’s son.
“We went down to the winner’s circle, and Jim was speechless, the only time I ever saw him speechless in my life,” Boniface said. “Now [Sean’s] the head of CBS Sports, but back then Sean was hustling his old man to get him a Ferrari, and I said no, forget the Ferrari, we’ll buy this mare, and we’ll raise a stakes winner. So we named the horse Sean’s Ferrari.”
Perhaps Boniface gets his ability to recollect facts from his late father, who covered horse racing from 1937 until his retirement in 1982. Boniface said of his dad and Steadman: “They were both first-class reporters. They didn’t take any cheap shots, but yet still told it bold.”
Boniface and his dad started the original Bonita Farm in Bel Air with 40 acres. After Deputed Testamony made history, they expanded it to 200 acres.
Now doubled in size, Bonita remains a family operation. Boniface’s sons, Kevin and John, remain fixtures of the operation, and daughter Kim trains part-time. Son Billy worked there too before becoming a Harford County administrator.
Construing his life as “a big parlay,” Boniface said he’ll share the Steadman Award with his family and horse-racing colleagues.
“You know, to me, it hasn’t always been about the money I make or the trophies I take,” he said softly. “It’s really been about the people I’ve met and the memories I keep.”
For tickets to the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame banquet, visit mdsahof.com.