01/16/2009 12:00AM

Access Fee gets Benders off to good start


Access Fee's convincing victory in the $50,000 What a Summer Stakes at Laurel Park last Saturday ended a long dry spell for prominent Maryland owner/breeders Sondra and Howard Bender.

The Benders - Maryland's leading breeders for three years running from 2001 to 2003 - endured frustrating seasons in 2007 and 2008, when their stable, composed almost exclusively of homebreds, failed to win a single stakes.

Access Fee, a 4-year-old, started off the new year on a high note, dominating every step of the way as the 4-5 favorite in the six-furlong What a Summer. She won ridden out by 4 3/4 lengths, defeating nine rivals in the unrestricted stakes.

For her next appearance, Access Fee is expected to carry Maryland's hopes in the Grade 2 $150,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap at Laurel on Feb. 14.

With only six starts, Access Fee is a testament to the patience of the Benders, as well as the efforts of their private trainer, Larry Murray.

"She's a big, powerful, flashy filly with a lot of issues," said Murray, who has 14 horses in his Laurel barn.

Along with "terrible feet" that require her to race with bar shoes on both front feet, Access Fee has had a "funky ankle from the time she was a baby," Murray said.

Currently "very sound," Access Fee is in fact a model of consistency.

Unraced until February of her 3-year-old season last year, Access Fee won her first two starts by a combined margin of 15 1/4 lengths. Undefeated in four starts at Laurel, she has only once finished worse than second. That was in the Foil Stakes on Dec. 14 at Aqueduct, when she got off to a slow start and made up ground heroically to finish fourth.

Her career earnings now total $95,050.

The Benders and Murray have brought at least 25 stakes winners to the races since 1988, most of them foaled and raised at Glade Valley Farms, the Frederick, Md., breeding establishment co-founded in the 1960s by Howard Bender's father, Jack I. Bender.

Murray also manages the breeding operation at Glade Valley.

Recent stars have included Promenade Girl, a multiple-stakes-winning daughter of Carson City who capped off her career for the Benders by selling for $1,125,000 at the 2007 Keeneland November sale.

Until last week, Access Fee's family had not rated high on their list of achievers.

The Benders purchased her granddam, Del Sovereign (by Sovereign Dancer), for $180,000 at the 1986 Saratoga selected yearling sale.

Del Sovereign, a half-sister to six stakes horses, joined the broodmare band at Glade Valley after a brief racing career that included 1 win in 3 starts.

Her only runner of consequence was Access Fee's dam, Denied Access.

A 1992 daughter of Cryptoclearance, Denied Access finished first or second in six of her seven starts, including a victory in the Singing Beauty Stakes.

"She had tremendous talent, but she also had serious [physical] issues," said Murray.

Denied Access produced Access Fee as her sixth foal. Her first two foals, the geldings Access Agenda (1998, by Twilight Agenda) and Access Approved (1999, by With Approval) were stakes-placed earners of $259,985 and $186,880, respectively.

"But they were grinders," noted Murray.

Because of her advancing age, Murray made the decision to sell Denied Access at the 2007 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic December mixed sale. She aborted her foal by Not for Love just before the sale and, announced as barren, sold on a $3,300 bid.

Access Fee's success prompted yet more curiosity about a prospective sale of Glade Valley, which has been the subject of rumors for several years.

"I get more questions about that than I do about the horses," said Murray.

Nothing is in the works, according to Murray. An Atlanta-based home-building firm, Beazer Homes, sought to develop a 1,000-acre tract owned by the Bender family and including Glade Valley's 550 acres, but plans fell through when the county and local municipalities refused the necessary rezoning.

* Another Maryland-bred making headlines last weekend was Dennis J. Federico's homebred Waquoit's Love, who won the $100,000 Marshua's River Stakes at Gulfstream Park. She defeated the 2008 champion Canadian 3-year-old filly, Ginger Brew, and got her first stakes win at the age of 6.