04/08/2004 11:00PM

Another big hit for Wirth brothers

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Brothers Eric and Albert Wirth of Douglaston, N.Y., teamed up to purchase their first Thoroughbred in the late 1960's, and have been breeding and racing horses, primarily in Maryland, ever since. One of their newest players, the promising 3-year-old Maryland-bred filly Spirited Game, conditioned by the brothers' longtime trainer Ron Cartwright, scored one for the home team when she won the Smart Halo Stakes on April 4 at Pimlico.

In the six-furlong Smart Halo, which attracted a field of nine, Spirited Game rated well off the pace, then closed determinedly to win by three-quarters of a length over New York shipper Highgate Park. It was the first stakes win for Spirited Game, a daughter of Not for Love who is one of a long line of stakes performers for her family.

A third-generation homebred for the Wirths, Spirited Game descends from the Wirths' foundation mare Clean Hit, whom they purchased as a yearling in 1970 at Keeneland for $10,000. A speedy runner by Hitting Away, Clean Hit won her maiden at Aqueduct, but didn't earn nearly enough to cover her purchase price - until she became a broodmare.

The Wirths got four stakes horses from Clean Hit's first six foals, including a 1980 Bailjumper filly named Escape Artist, who would surpass her dam's accomplishments.

The Wirth brothers hooked up with Cartwright in the early 1970's, when it was decided their stable might be competitive in Maryland. It was natural for them to foal mares in the state in which their trainer was based.

Escape Artist's first foal was Maryland-bred Banner Hit, an Oh Say filly sent out by Cartwright to win the 1988 Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship Stakes. With a $125,000 guaranteed purse, it was the richest race the brothers had ever won. Banner Hit earned more than $160,000 for the Wirths before being claimed away from them in February 1991.

Banner Hit's 2-year-old full sister Anacreontic came to the races in the fall of 1991 and won the Heavenly Cause Stakes for the Wirths. Anacreontic was also stakes placed at 3 and earned nearly $150,000, but she also was claimed from the Wirths.

By the time Game Hit, Escape Artist's fourth foal by Lord Gaylord's son I Am the Game, came to the races in 1993, the brothers were about ready to call an end to the breeding business. By the late 1990's, the Wirths had sold all their breeding stock, but the durable mare Game Hit, a winner of six races and nearly $100,000 over six seasons, was ready to retire from the track. In the spring of 1998, the Wirths had a new broodmare.

Cartwright suggested the Wirths send the mare to Waquoit, a race horse they all admired - and the first foal of a new generation, Game Hit's 1999 filly Deck Game, was born. A colt by Awad named Agame followed. Spirited Game is the third foal, and third winner, out of Game Hit.

Game Hit and the recently retired Deck Game are boarded at Suzanne Moscarelli's Country Roads Farm in Warwick, Md., just down the road from Northview Stallion Station, home to the stallions who have been bred to the two mares.

"Suzanne said she thought Spirited Game looked like a nice filly all along," said Eric Wirth. "We thought Deck Game was a stakes-caliber filly, but she hurt her back in her first start." While Deck Game never fulfilled her potential, she earned $82,615 from 13 starts. She is being bred to Diamond this spring.

Game Hit foaled a filly by Waquoit on March 15 and will be returned to Not for Love.

Unraced at 2 due to a few minor setbacks, Spirited Game made an eye-catching debut at Laurel Park Jan. 31, winning by 5 1/2 lengths as the 8-5 favorite in the field of 12. She had been 15-1 on the morning line.

"Someone must have heard something," said Eric Wirth, who watched the race at Gulfstream Park, not far from his winter home in Florida.

The race attracted the attention of Stan Salter, executive producer of Maryland Horse Breeders Association Thoroughbred Weekly, a half-hour television show hosted by Keith Mills that airs on Sundays at noon on Baltimore station WMAR. Spirited Game is becoming a regular on the show - her debut was shown in February and she appears once again on this weekend's show.