BUT WHO IS SHE REALLY, THIS SASSCER HILL?
I was born with horses in my veins and started galloping about the family farm on a stick horse when I was four years old. By the time I was seven or eight, I was sneaking rides on the Belgian plow horses. I did this because my father didn't like horses and considered ponies dangerous. So instead, I drummed my heels on the sides of a 2,000 pound draft mare, while grasping whatever string or rope I managed to tie to her halter.
In 2010, when my first book, FULL MORTALITY, was published, I looked to that past and dedicated my horse racing mystery to the two people who recognized and nurtured the horses that raced in my veins - Rhoda Christmas Bowling and Alfred H. Smith, Sr.
Rhoda is probably America's first female sports writer. She wrote a racing column for the Washington Times Herald in the nineteen forties. She bred Maryland racehorses, and held a trainer's license, too. She had a fiery temper, often cursed like a sailor, and threw society parties that could turn Mary Lou Whitney green with envy. Rhoda's brother, Edward Christmas, trained the legendary Gallorette, the mare that won the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Handicaps, the 1948 Whitney Stakes, and beat the champion colt Stymie. Beat him three times.
Rhoda had a lovely estate in Upper Marlboro named Bellefields where she gave me my earliest riding lessons on a dappled-grey rescue horse named Blue Bantam. I first met Rhoda at a birthday party held for her niece, Edward Christmas's daughter, Kitsi. It was one those dreaded events where I was forced into a fussy little dress and patent leather shoes. Kitsi, a motherless child with curly red hair, squirmed in an equally frilly outfit. Like me, she was only five or six, but must have recognized a kindred soul, for we snuck off, found a creek, and returned covered in mud. Kitsi and I have been friends ever since, and my only regret is that I never met her father, who died not long after that party.
Rhoda visited my father at our farm, Pleasant Hills, when I was seven or eight. It was summer, and we sat on wicker chairs on the front porch, where I soon realized Rhoda was intent on persuading my father to buy me a pony.
It was ridiculous, she said, when he owned a farm and had a tenant who kept plow horses, already.
I sat, tensely watching them bat the argument back and forth. I prayed Rhoda would win, but my father wasn't having it. When Rhoda left, I was crushed. I'd been so close.
My father died when I was sixteen, and Alfred H. Smith Sr., owner of 1966 Eclipse Champion steeplechaser, Tuscalee, took me under his wing, probably because my mother told him I was a handful and headed for trouble.
Mr. Smith, as I always called him, took me out horseback riding with his family, and after determining I could ride, he took me foxhunting, putting me on a just-off-the-track Thoroughbred, named Hillmar. Those were some wild hunts. I confess I committed the sin of "passing the master" several times, pulling vainly on the bit stuck firmly between Hillmar's teeth. But I'd found a place to channel that teenage passion, and my grades improved steadily. I wound up graduating from Franklin and Marshall College with honors and a degree in English Literature.
I bought my first broodmare in 1982, to keep my lonely hunter company. I raised her foals, prepped them, and sold them at the Timonium yearling sales. My husband, Daniel Filippelli, and I had no help. We worked full time and took care of the farm ourselves. Work was something to get through until I could be home with the horses.
In 1985, the Smith family gave me another retired steeplechaser named Circus Rullah. A grandson of Nasrullah, that horse would jump anything and carried me to a win over the timber fences at the 1986 Potomac Hunt Races. I've never been so focused or so scared in my life. You don't race to the fences - they rush straight at you.
By 1992, Barry G. Wiseman - currently the top assistant to Jonathan Sheppard -- was training my home-breds, and I was looking for a new broodmare. Barry liked a Hero's Honor filly that belonged to Maryland trainer Gary Capuano. Bred by Jim McCay's wife and named In Her Honor, she was sore and laid up on a farm on the Eastern shore of Maryland. Trusting Barry, I paid for the horse sight unseen. We drove across the Bay Bridge in a terrible rain and wind storm in November of 1993 with the horse trailer whipping behind us. We reached the farm and Gary's uncle, Lou Capuano, led us into a dimly lit barn, pointed to a stall and said, "There she is."
A small horse resembling a woolly mammoth glared at us from the depths of the stall.
"Watch yourself, when I bring her out," Lou said, "she's mean and she'll kick you."
What had Barry gotten me into?
But when Lou led her out, she stepped up from that deceptively low stall and towered over me. She had a bowed tendon the size of a melon. Her hair was matted, dirty, and wet. We loaded her on my trailer, took her home, and put her in a paddock with a run-in-shed. Disdaining the shed, she stood outside. The hard, cold rain slicked her coat down and revealed a powerful, classic body. As usual, Barry was right.
I bred that mare to the new sire, Not For Love. I named the resulting colt For Love and Honor, and no doubt some of you New Yorkers will remember him running and winning at Saratoga and Aqueduct. He won around $418,000 and so far is the best horse I've bred. But you never know, he has yearling half-brother, named Out For Honor. The colt is by Outflanker, and when he flies around my front field, I recognize the racing in his veins.
Sasscer Hill on the lead aboard Circus Rullah on the way to winning the 1986 Potomac Hunt's Foxhunter Timber Race.