Updated on 09/18/2011 1:46AM

Sassy Love gives fairy tale happy ending


Dr. Michael Harrison, a Baltimore County veterinarian who owns and operates 280-acre Willowdale Farm in Butler, Md., has been a breeder on a small scale since establishing his veterinary practice at Willowdale in 1982. His biggest thrill in racing with one of his own horses came on Dec. 16 at Laurel Park.

Harrison's homebred mare Sassy Love, at 15-1 the second-longest shot in the field of eight for the Geisha Handicap, turned back the challenges of odds-on choice Promenade Girl and stakes winners Plata and Lexi Star to win the stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares by nearly four lengths. It was the first stakes win for a 5-year-old mare who has gotten little respect in her 22-start career.

"This has been a Cinderella story," said Harrison about Sassy Love, his first stakes winner.

Harrison's Cinderella story began when he was offered an elderly broodmare named Love and Kisses.

"Love and Kisses came to me as a gift from a client," said Harrison.

That client, Maryland horsewoman Linell Smith, had acquired Love and Kisses, then 18, in 1995 from the estate of longtime Maryland breeder Harry Love, who had died earlier that year. Love and Kisses, a daughter of Northern Dancer's first champion, Viceregal, was a direct descendant of the stellar broodmare Boudoir II (a name found in the pedigrees of such champions as Kelso and Real Quiet, and Majestic Prince, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

According to Harrison, Smith saved Love and Kisses and another aged broodmare, Always and Always (at the time 17), from an unknown fate when he bought them from the Love estate.

"These were mares with no place to go," Harrison said.

Love and Kisses produced two foals for Smith, but then began to experience reproductive issues. So Smith offered Love and Kisses to her veterinarian on the chance he could get a few more foals out of the well-bred mare.

Harrison selected Maryland-bred horse of the year Valley Crossing, who at the time stood at the Boniface family's Bonita Farm in Darlington, Md., as a mate for Love and Kisses. Harrison liked Valley Crossing's pedigree. He's a son of Private Account out of the His Majesty mare Chic and Sassy, and Harrison was impressed by the Grade 1-winning millionaire's accomplishments as a racehorse.

Love and Kisses's first foal for Harrison was her 2000 son Emily's Sugarbear, who was sold as a yearling and earned $18,256. The next year, at the age of 24, Love and Kisses produced her final foal, Sassy Love.

All 10 of Love and Kisses's 14 foals to race are winners, but Sassy Love is her best runner by far.

Much larger than her dam, Sassy Love needed time to develop, and didn't make her first start until June of last year, when she finished off the board going six furlongs over Pimlico's main track. Among those finishing ahead of her that day was Katie's Love, who ran third in last week's Geisha.

Trained by Casey Randall, whom Harrison describes as "a passionate trainer with an great understanding of horses and what they are all about," Sassy Love was switched to the turf during the summer of 2005. She did well, hitting the board in three of her five starts on grass, and never going off at odds lower than 6-1. Still looking for her first win, Sassy Love's connections took a shot at the Maryland Million Ladies Stakes, and sent off at 11-1, she finished second to Surf Light. Sassy Love then won next out as the favorite, going 1 1/16 miles over Laurel's turf, and came right back to win on the main track at 1 1/8 miles.

"We thought she was a stakes-level horse," said Harrison. "She loves what she's doing, and she has a great heart."

This past February, Sassy Love was third in the Maryland Racing Media Association Handicap, and in her outing prior to the Geisha, she nearly pulled the upset of the day on the De Francis Dash card at Laurel when she just failed to last and finished second at 100-1 to Art Fan in the April Run Stakes.

The Geisha victory, which boosted Sassy Love's earnings to $188,270, was her only win in 13 starts in 2006, although she did hit the board eight times. She is now expected to get a break, and Harrison looks forward to bigger races next year.

Harrison, who lost 29-year-old Love and Kisses this past winter, also looks forward to starting the next chapter when Sassy Love is retired as a broodmare. "It proves that it's obtainable," said Harrison of every breeder's optimal goal, that of getting a stakes winner.