07/24/2003 11:00PM

Long wait ends for O'Donovans


After 60 years of marriage and more than 40 years of breeding Thoroughbreds, Hugh and Achsah O'Donovan continue to find happiness by the light of a perfect moon.

Perfect Moon is a 2-year-old Maryland-bred gelding who rallied from a stalking position to win the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship by daylight on the closing weekend of the Hollywood Park summer meeting. By Malibu Moon out of the Parfaitement mare Perfectly, Perfect Moon represents three generations of horses bred and raised by the O'Donovans and is their first graded stakes winner.

Now owned by Annabelle Stute and The Hat Ranch, Perfect Moon was plucked out of last fall's Fasig-Tipton Midlantic yearling sale by trainer Mel Stute for a bargain price of $4,700. The $61,500 he earned in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship pushed Perfect Moon's career earnings to $93,870 from six starts.

The O'Donovans are quintessential Maryland horse gentry. And the Pons family, who own Country Life Farm where freshman sire Malibu Moon stands, have known the O'Donovans "since the 1940's, or maybe even before," says family patriarch Joe Pons. "They have been breeding to Country Life stallions since the 1950's. Such good people are deserving of any success."

In the 1940's, the O'Donovans were active foxhunters and Hugh O'Donovan became a highly regarded amateur rider. By the mid-1950's, they ascended the Maryland Hunt Cup judges' stand to accept the winner's trophy for Lancrel, a temperamental French import who was purchased by Hugh O'Donovan as a hunter but went on to capture the revered Maryland Hunt Cup by 12 lengths (with teenager Frank Bonsal Jr. aboard). Two years earlier, Lancrel, with Bonsal up, had won the Virginia Gold Cup for the O'Donovans.

In 1959, the O'Donovans purchased 200-acre Grasslands Farm in Upperco, Md., and branched out as Thoroughbred breeders. Their first broodmare purchase was a daughter of Royal Charger named One-a-Penny, and her first foal for the O'Donovans, a colt by Tuscany, took the couple to Saratoga for the yearling sales in 1961, where they sold their yearling for $7,200, the highest-priced Tuscany that year. Over the next decade, the O'Donovans would be active sellers at the Saratoga summer sales.

In the late 1960's, an O'Donovan-consigned filly was purchased at Saratoga by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Lunger's Christiana Stables for $10,000. Named Pit Bunny, the daughter of Hasty Road ranked among the nation's top 3-year-old fillies of 1969. The highlight of her season came when she crossed the wire first in the Delaware Oaks while defeating Gallant Bloom and Shuvee. Pit Bunny's number came down, however, and she was placed second after interfering with Gallant Bloom in the stretch. Gallant Bloom finished the year undefeated and was named champion 3-year-old filly and champion handicap filly or mare.

Pit Bunny, who also finished second to Shuvee in the Alabama Stakes after leading for most of the race, was awarded the title of best 3-year-old Maryland-bred filly of 1969. Retired at the end of that season, she never officially earned a stakes victory.

Over the next three decades, the O'Donovans had as many as 30 horses on their farm at one time, and produced four or five foals a year, with most headed to the sales. "We have always kept a few fillies to race," said Achsah O'Donovan. "Perfectly is one we kept."

Unraced herself, Perfectly is a direct descendant of Coaching Club American Oaks winner Damaged Goods. She produced three foals before Perfect Moon, two of whom are minor winners.

Perfect Moon, who won his maiden in May, was the first winner and first stakes winner for his sire, Malibu Moon, and is most responsible for Malibu Moon's rocket leap into the top 10 on the nation's leading freshman sires list.

Now in their 80's, the O'Donovans have scaled back their horse operation and all that remain are Perfectly, her soon-to-be weaned filly by Malibu Moon, and a yearling colt by Valley Crossing out of the Two Punch mare Smack.

It may be the twilight of a long career as breeders for the O'Donovans, but this new star looks to shine brightly for them.