06/07/2002 12:00AM

Bargain mare still breeding at age 23

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It's a special kind of challenge attempting to breed top-dollar runners on a bottom-dollar budget, but Chesapeake City, Md., horseman David Wade offers living proof that it can be done.

At the 1992 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky January sale, Wade paid $5,500 for a then-13-year-old mare, Sunny Sparkler (by Sunny Clime), who subsequently has produced three foals to race, all of them stakes performers.

The most recent display by one of Sunny Sparkler's offspring came on May 26 at Monmouth Park when her daughter, Sparkling Number, prevailed by a neck in the Thomas J. Malley Stakes. Sparkling Number (by Polish Numbers) was making her 4-year-old debut in the race, following a stellar 2001 season in which she won or placed in five stakes and was voted champion Maryland-bred 3-year-old filly.

Wade, best known as the farm manager of Richard Golden's Sycamore Hall Farm in Chesapeake City, had a strategy in place when he bought Sunny Sparkler as his first broodmare. He sought, and found, a grand-looking mare with a fine race record and an even finer pedigree. Sunny Sparkler had six stakes wins or placings, including a victory in the Grade 3 Boiling Springs Handicap, and earnings of $198,079. She is a granddaughter of Blue Sparkler, and a half-sister to two stakes horses, including multiple graded stakes winner Honey Fox.

How was that possible? "With my limited resources, there had to be a compromise somewhere," explained Wade. "And that was fertility." In nine years of visiting the breeding shed, Sunny Sparkler had produced only two named foals, one to race.

The mare got right down to business after arriving at Sycamore Hall, however. Her 1993 colt Smart Sunny, by Smarten, brought $19,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Eastern Fall Yearling sale and went on to win or place in three stakes, earning $296,856. Three lost years followed, then along came Canavakiss, a 1997 Rakeen mare whom Wade races in partnership with trainer Graham Motion. Third in the 2001 Maryland Million Ladies, Canavakiss has earned $63,650 while establishing for herself a future place in Wade's small broodmare band.

Sparkling Number, by then a half-sister to a stakes winner, proved a hot commodity at the 1999 Eastern Fall Yearling sale, where she was purchased by trainer Linda Rice on behalf of Wade's employer, Golden. "There was an under-bidder," said Wade. "It wasn't charity on Mr. Golden's part. He really liked her." Sparkling Number has campaigned for Golden and Rice throughout her career, and her most recent victory pushed her earnings to $148,250.

The filly's success is in some ways a just reward for Golden, who has done much to further Wade's career as a breeder. "Some people might not allow their farm manager to keep mares of his own, but Mr. Golden actually encourages it," said Wade, who now owns several other mares, including a superbly bred, but fertility-impaired daughter of Danzig, Dance Cat (out of Queen Sucree). "He came to look at Sunny Sparkler before I bought her, and said she looked like a good prospect; he remembered her when she was racing."

For Sunny Sparkler's improved production rate, Wade directs all sorts of kudos to Chestertown, Md., veterinarian Tom Bowman, a noted reproductive specialist. Although barren for 2000, Sunny Sparkler has produced foals in the last two years and is still going strong at 23. She has a Partner's Hero yearling colt whom Wade intends to consign to this year's Eastern Fall Yearling sale, and another colt (a late May foal) by Partner's Hero at her side. Wade plans to breed her back to Not For Love.

"It might seem unfair breeding a mare her age, but she looks like a 12-year-old," said Wade. "She'll tell us when she's ready to stop."