Updated on 09/17/2011 5:48PM

Health woes behind, looking like a million

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There's a story behind every horse who came home a winner on Maryland Million Day, Oct. 9 at Pimlico. But none could top the tale of Merryland Missy, the 4-year-old daughter of Citidancer who prevailed at more than 15-1 to win the $100,000 Maryland Million Distaff.

The first stakes winner bred by longtime Maryland horseman Jim Dresher (under the name of his Huckleberry Farm LLC), Merryland Missy was a longshot even to survive as a yearling, when she contracted Potomac horse fever. She has since overcome two more major health problems: a knee chip as a 3-year-old, and a lacerated cornea in May.

Merryland Missy was one of the first yearlings raised under the new regime at historic Merryland Farm in Hydes, Md., which Josh and Mike Pons purchased in 2001 as an annex to their family-owned Country Life Farm in Bel Air, Md. The Ponses have been restoring Merryland in segments, and the training track "was the last big piece of the puzzle," said Josh Pons.

"We dedicated all our efforts to finishing it this fall," said Pons, "and the day after the Maryland Million we had planned a 'Track is Back' party at Merryland. When this filly, who had shown so much heart to overcome all those problems, and is named after the farm, won the Maryland Million race, it was enough to give everyone goose bumps."

Country Life, one of Maryland's leading stallion operations and home to Merryland Missy's sire, Citidancer, has celebrated numerous Maryland Million victories by offspring of its stallions in the previous 18 runnings of the event. But Merryland Missy gave the farm its first Maryland Million win as an owner.

"We waited almost 20 years for this!" said Pons.

The groundwork for Merryland Missy's big victory began in 1998, when the Ponses bought the filly's dam, Smart Tally (by Smarten), at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic February mixed sale for $15,500, on Dresher's behalf. Dresher, who owns Skye Hospitality, a hotel business, became acquainted with the horse business in 1975 when his family purchased a once-prominent Thoroughbred establishment, Glenangus Farm in Bel Air, Md. Glenangus operated as a horse farm until the early 1980's under the Dreshers' ownership, and still is owned by the family, but is no longer in use for horses.

Jim Dresher never gave up his interest in horses. He was actively involved with breeding and racing until 1990, then got away from it for eight years while focusing on his hotel business. In 1998, he was ready to buy some more horses, and asked the Ponses to buy him a mare at the sale. Enter Smart Tally.

A maiden mare when Dresher bought her, Smart Tally (a foal of 1993, out of She Can Add, by Robellino) produced as her first foal the 1999 Citidancer colt Pieter Brueghel, who sold as a weanling for $27,000 at the Keeneland November sale and is a winner in England.

Merryland Missy came next. Consigned to the 2001 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Eastern fall yearling sale, not long after her Potomac fever episode, Merryland Missy was on the small side.

"But obviously she had already shown us she had heart," said Pons. "I told Jim ahead of time that we would be bidding on her, after she got to his reserve." Country Life bought the filly on a bid of $23,000, and immediately Dresher sought to repurchase an interest in her.

Merryland Missy races for a Country Life Farm Partnership, in which Dresher owns 25 percent. Country Life has 20 percent. The remainder is divided among 10-percent owners Jeff and Lisa Bowen of Greenville, Del.; C.G. Smith of Annapolis, Md.; and Louis Morris of Dix Hill, N.Y.; and 5 percent owners Robert Epstein of Upper Grandview, N.Y.; James E. Jones of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Eva Lydick of Albuquerque, N.Mex.; Janet McCabe of Clarks Green, Pa.; and David and Penny Stauffer of Landisville, Pa.

Smart Tally is boarded at Bonita Farm in Darlington, Md. Dresher sold her Allen's Prospect filly for $26,000 at the recent Eastern fall yearling sale. She has a weanling Mojave Moon colt and is barren for 2005. Dresher hopes to breed her next season to Not for Love.