skip to main content skip to main navigation
Herbert and her horses - Click to enlarge

For Immediate Release: May 25, 2006

Jeff Beach

Mary Jo Herbert is one of those lucky people who got to live out her childhood dream.

As a girl, she would ride horses from her grandfather’s East Brunswick farm and think about someday making a living in the equine industry.

“He did a lot with horses on his farm; he even plowed the fields with horses,” Mrs. Herbert said. “I used to drive a horse and wagon to and from the orchard. That’s how I got my first enjoyment of horses. My uncle gave me my first horse, and we had an old sleigh we used to be able to drive on Cranbury Road.

“But when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, women were supposed to either go into teaching, or nursing, or they were a full-time mom. So I became a teacher.”

After two years of teaching at an East Brunswick elementary school, Mrs. Herbert had the first of five children, and never returned to the profession. Instead, when her youngest child was about a year old, the opportunity arose for her and her husband, Mike, to buy a farm in Hopewell Township and begin breeding horses.

“At first we bought a couple of Arabians, because that was the big popular horse back then,” she said. “We bred them, sold them, showed some of them. But then people got off of Arabians. One of our friends said, ‘You could make some money breeding thoroughbreds.’ So we did. We bought our first thoroughbred brood mare in the ’80s and from then on we’ve been breeding and raising thoroughbreds.”

On a recent warm morning, Mrs. Herbert proudly showed off the three newest arrivals to her stables, all born in recent months, which joined four yearlings and three 2-year-olds. Now at 55 acres and about 20 horses, the Herberts are well known in New Jersey’s equine community. In fact, Mrs. Herbert represents the equine industry on the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture.

Since thoroughbreds require “live cover” for breeding instead of artificial insemination, much of Mrs. Herbert’s time is spent on the road, such as a recent trip to Maryland to take a mare there for breeding.

“We also go to the thoroughbred sales in New York and Maryland. There are no longer sales in New Jersey. They used to have them at Garden State (Racetrack in Cherry Hill), but that’s gone. It’s so sad.”

For horse people like the Herberts, any decline in New Jersey’s equine industry is noticeable. But you wouldn’t have to be an industry insider in recent years to see that horseracing in particular has fallen off its former pace. 

“Since 1995, our racetracks have seen a significant decline in attendance and handle,” Agriculture Secretary Charles M. Kuperus said. “One, Garden State, closed entirely, and the racing days at another, Atlantic City, are minimal. If we do not strengthen our horseracing industry, the related segments, such as breeding farms, will suffer. It would be a shame to lose the economic contributions of some of the 81,000 acres of farmland connected to the equine industry.”

While equine still commands a strong third-place spot in the ranking of the state’s agricultural sectors – behind ornamental horticulture and the fruit-and-vegetable sectors, respectively – a downturn in the horseracing industry over the past several decades has many worried that breeding farms and other facets of the industry tied to racing will have an increasingly tough time staying in the state.

Secretary Kuperus recently testified before the state Senate Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee that action must be taken now to stave off competition from the racing industries in neighboring states. Many have incorporated other forms of gambling into their racetracks. Eschewing that route, New Jersey has instead seen the Atlantic City casino industry commit millions of dollars to supplement purses at New Jersey tracks.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture is working with leaders from both groups, the thoroughbreds and standardbreds (trotters and pacers), to devise business-boosting programs to the sector. Already, thoroughbred breeder awards have been expanded to include New Jersey-bred horses finishing first through third in select races held outside the state. Plans are being formed to expand the role of the “Jersey Bred” branding program to position New Jersey-bred animals as leaders in the marketplace and to arrange “new owners seminars” at which residents can learn how to own a racehorse, either individually or through partnerships.

“We’re looking at all the options and ways we can reinvigorate interest in horseracing and strengthen our breeding sector,” said Secretary Kuperus. “Our standardbred breeding farms have an excellent reputation. They’re regarded on par with Kentucky’s thoroughbred breeders. We cannot let those operations be drawn to other states to be closer to racetracks where the purses are higher.”

Not all is on the downside for the state’s racetracks. Monmouth Park, for instance, is undergoing extensive renovations to prepare for hosting the 2007 Breeders Cup, and locating that prestigious race there next year could help spark renewed interest in the track and racing in general. But, special events aside, agricultural leaders know they must do more to draw fans back to the tracks on a regular basis.

“I’d like to see more (horse-owning) partnerships,” Mrs. Herbert said. “That will encourage more people to become involved in racing. People have to realize, though, that it’s a couple-year project. If you buy them as a yearling, they’re trained, then there’s time off you have to take, then back to training and then you can get them racing as a late-2-year-old or a 3-year-old. It’s a real commitment of time.”

“I know we can work together with the standardbred and thoroughbred groups to renew interest in our racetracks and breeding industry,” added Secretary Kuperus. “We have plenty of creative minds here and I trust that together we will find the right formula to recapture the glory days of New Jersey horseracing.” 

top of page