10/12/2001 12:00AM

Country Life expands

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Two of Maryland's oldest and most prized Thoroughbred farms are located eight miles apart. Until two months ago, one was bursting at the seams, with no room for expansion, while the other sat nearly idle, its handsome old barns badly in need of paint, its training track overgrown with weeds.

All of that changed on Aug. 16, when Josh and Mike Pons, who operate family-owned Country Life Farm in Bel Air, completed the purchase of Merryland Farm in Hydes.

Merryland, renamed Country Life Nursery at Merryland Farm, now houses some 60 horses belonging to Country Life Farm and its clients and partnerships.

And the Ponses are well on their way to restoring Merryland to the way it looked in its glory days, when it was owned by Danny Shea (in the 1940's and '50's) and Barbara Obre and her son Michael Wettach (from 1962 to 1986).

Nestled in Maryland's bucolic Long Green Valley, Merryland has amenities that include a five-eighth-mile training track, 83 stalls, eight run-in sheds, and more than 100 acres of pastureland, much of it unused by horses in the last 15 years.

The 159-acre farm is part of a conservation easement that can never be developed, and is surrounded by other conservation properties, many of them working farms.

"It's all here, and everything is structurally sound," said Josh Pons. "What it needed were routine maintenance types of things that hadn't been done in a long time."

Merryland is being used for broodmares, young horses, and sales prepping. Country Life continues to operate at its original site, where it stands six stallions, including leading Mid-Atlantic sire Allen's Prospect.

"The two properties will operate hand in glove," said Mike Pons.

Country Life's burgeoning stallion operation and a recent increase in the farm's broodmare population made the nursery annex almost a necessity, explained Josh Pons. Two of the farm's young stallions, Malibu Moon and Unbridled Jet, are each being supported with 10 to 12 broodmares a year by their part-owner, B. Wayne Hughes and Charlie Hesse, respectively.

Country Life also stands Carnivalay, Citidancer, and Storm Broker.

The idea of taking over Merryland had been simmering at Country Life for a long time. "We thought about buying it in 1986," said Mike Pons.

"We couldn't afford it then. It was sold at auction in its nadir in 1999, and even then it brought more than we anticipated."

William Rickman Sr., owner of Delaware Park, bought Merryland for $1,075,000 at the 1999 auction. The Ponses said they paid in seven figures for the farm, which had been improved significantly by Rickman.

Financing for the deal was provided by Susquehanna Bank, which is also a sponsor of the Maryland Million, which was to run Saturday at Pimlico.

Merryland is every inch a family project. Mike's wife, Lisa, Josh's wife, Ellen, and his parents, Joe and Mary Jo Pons, are supplying labor and moral support. And the next generation is also involved. Josh has two sons, Josh (11) and August (8); Mike's three children are Philip (13), Elizabeth (11) and David (9). It's too soon to predict whether any of the children will make it a career, but "they love to come over here, and they also help out," said Mike Pons.