01/10/2003 12:00AM

Maryland breeding news


Sometimes perseverance pays off. Just ask Lucy Kessler. Kessler and her late husband, Elliott, worked for more than 20 years developing a breeding program at their 45-acre Liberty Hill Farm in Mt. Airy, Md. Beginning in the early 1990's, they also trained a small stable at Pimlico. When Elliott died at age 65 in March 2000, Lucy continued with the farm that had long been the couple's pride and joy.

The Kesslers had a number of successes, most notably as the breeders of Taking Risks, a Grade 1 winner who they sold as a yearling for $16,000. But until last fall Lucy Kessler was still waiting for her first stakes victory as an owner. Now it has happened twice, with the only two horses Kessler has in training.

Trainer Hamilton Smith, based at Laurel Park, gets kudos for both of Kessler's winners.

Smith saddled the Kessler homebred Sauvignon to a $67.20 victory in the Julie Snellings Stakes at Delaware Park on Sept. 4. Then, stablemate Gazillion vaulted into prominence, romping by eight lengths against Maryland-bred

3-year-old filly rivals in the Squan Song Stakes on Dec. 26 at Laurel Park.

Out of a half-sister to Taking Risks, Gazillion descends from top Maryland-bred runners on both sides of her pedigree. She was sired by Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Smoke Glacken, the Maryland-bred horse of the year in 1997, and her unraced dam Mush Brush is a daughter of multiple Grade 1 winner and two-time Maryland-bred horse of the year Broad Brush.

"I can't help but feel that Elliott has been a part of all this," said Kessler. "Gazillion was from the first batch to sell after he died."

Kessler said that when she and her husband entered Gazillion in the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic eastern fall yearling sale, they were "advised against submitting X-rays in the repository, due to the expense. But someone who was very interested in buying her went ahead and had the X-rays taken."

The X-rays showed OCD (osteochondrosis) lesions, said Kessler

"I withdrew her from the sale and sent her for surgery at doctors Gary and Shauna Spurlock's clinic near Leesburg, Va.," Kessler said. "She got her early education from J.K. Adams in Glyndon, Md., and everything has gone smoothly since."

Smoothly might be an understatement. Unraced at 2, Gazillion finished out of the money only once in nine starts at 3 last year, while winning five races and earning $114,250. She was runner-up to Graded 1-placed Willa on the Move in the Politely Stakes on Nov. 2, and led up to the Squan Song with a victory in optional claiming company at Laurel Park on Nov. 27.

Kessler, who also works as a realtor with an office in Gaithersburg, Md., has full days maintaining her farm, which is home to five broodmares, including Gazillion's dam, Mush Brush. Kessler plans to campaign Gazillion's 2-year-old half-brother by Grindstone in partnership with one of her friends from

the real estate company, Kathryn Miller, under the nom de course "22 N 2 Stables."

The Kesslers knew almost nothing about horses when they bought Liberty Hill Farm in 1981. But Elliott Kessler, who had founded an automobile leasing firm in Beltsville, Md., 25 years before that, convinced his wife that breeding and raising horses would be a great learning experience.

It has been that and more, said Kessler. Hefty bonuses from the state's Maryland-bred fund came their way, thanks to Taking Risks, who won four stakes in Maryland, in addition to the Grade 1 Iselin Handicap.

"The bonuses and several sales yearlings from his family, paid for an addition to our house," said Kessler, who lives in a 200-year-old home overlooking the open hills of Frederick County. "So, in a way, I feel like he's still here, too."