07/11/2003 12:00AM

Bittersweet Farm more sweet than bitter

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Pat Konka and Maureen Johnson may not truly be blessed with a sixth sense about horses, but it often seems that way.

The couple - they are married but use separate names - overcame all odds at the recent Maryland Horse Breeders Association yearling show, winning two of the six classes and the reserve championship with youngsters out of mares they bought at auction in early 2002.

It was the latest of many remarkable feats for Konka and Johnson, who struck paydirt with their first joint purchase back in 1991. That one was Brilliant Lady, whom the couple bought for $1,700, in foal to Marine Brass, at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic December mixed sale. Brilliant Lady's daughter Brilliant Brass (by Marine Brass) won nine stakes in 1992, and was voted Maryland-bred horse of the year.

Konka and Johnson privately sold Brilliant Lady and her 1992 Marine Brass colt for a substantial profit, and the proceeds enabled them to put a down payment on their 50-acre Bittersweet Farm in Westminster, Md., which today is home to seven broodmares.

Three Bittersweet homebreds were among the 112 contestants in this year's MHBA yearling show, judged by Barclay Tagg. The judge fell in love with Konka-Johnson's colt by Tale of the Cat-Azusa, by Flying Paster, placing him first in the class for out-of-state-sired colts and geldings, then tabbing him for runner-up honors among all the yearlings in the show.

Konka spotted the colt's dam, Azusa (a foal of 1987, out of Pleased Look, by Personality), at the Keeneland January sale, where he bought her on a bid of $21,000. A stakes winner and graded stakes producer, in foal to a stallion, Tale of the Cat, who stood for $25,000, Azusa seemed almost too good to be true.

"When I called Maureen and told her, she said: 'Are you sure you looked at the board, and she's still in foal?' " Konka recalled.

Konka-Johnson consigned the Tale of the Cat-Azusa colt as a weanling to last December's Fasig-Tipton Midlantic mixed sale with a $49,000 reserve, and bought him back for $43,000. They intend to sell him at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Eastern fall sale in October.

Still, the Tale of the Cat colt doesn't take all-around top billing among Bittersweet's 2002 foal crop. That status belongs to their other yearling show blue-ribbon winner, the filly Thatswhatimean, by Belong to Me out of the Red Ransom mare Lucinda K.

Purchased by Johnson for $41,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky February sale, Lucinda K soared in value this year as the dam of 2003 Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Atswhatimtalknbout.

Atswhatimtalknbout's owner, B. Wayne Hughes, approached Konka and Johnson about buying Lucinda K after the colt won his maiden spectacularly at Santa Anita in early January. Konka and Johnson did not hesitate; the sale is their biggest financial coup to date.

Lucinda K's current yearling filly will be offered at the Keeneland September sale.

Neither Konka nor Johnson was born to the horse business. Both of them had long careers with Giant Food, working nights, before leaving 3 1/2 years ago to devote most of their time to their horses. Konka, 54, has a part-time job as stable manager at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic auction sales.

Konka credits Fasig-Tipton Midlantic executive director Mason Grasty as their main advisor.

"Mason has taught me 99 percent of what I know about horses," he said. "But it's a team effort. Maureen is extremely attentive to every detail on the farm, and we have a good veterinarian and a good farrier. We don't spare expenses when it comes to veterinary and farrier care, because it pays off in the long run."