07/20/2001 12:00AM

Touch Love out to prove she's Tough Love


Is Touch Love the real thing? Look for an answer to one of life's eternal questions in the Grade 2 Schuylerville Stakes on opening day at Saratoga, when trainer Tony Dutrow plans to run the undefeated Maryland-bred 2-year-old filly in her toughest race so far.

When a young horse defeats every rival, but doesn't have to run particularly fast to do so, it can be difficult to gauge the youngster's true ability. That's the situation with Touch Love.

"She runs slow, but she beats the competition," said Dutrow, who saddled Touch Love to a maiden special victory at Delaware Park on May 7, then moved her right up to stakes competition - and a $18.20 score - in the Astoria Stakes on July 1 at Belmont Park. Largely overlooked in the Astoria, in which favorite Smok'n Frolic was seeking a repeat of her triumph in Belmont's June 7 Fashion Stakes, Touch Love raced close to the lead throughout and prevailed by a gritty three-quarters of a length. The 5 1/2 furlongs were timed in 22.91 seconds, 47.03, 59.34, and 1:05.65.

Touch Love campaigns for Skeedattle Stable, a partnership of Marylanders Willie White and Lou Rehak, who have been remarkably successful with many stakes winners over the past several seasons, including 2000 Maryland-bred horse of the year Gin Talking. Touch Love (by Not For Love out of the Smarten mare Smartenof) was purchased for $17,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Eastern Fall Yearling sale last October, and she arrived at Dutrow's barn in April.

"She's been nice all along - smart, mature mentally," said Dutrow. "Everybody likes her."

Touch Love's rapidly blossoming career has surprised her breeders Cynthia and Charles McGinnes, who sold her dam Smartenof for $6,500 at last February's Fasig-Tipton Midlantic mixed sale. But maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise, reflected Cynthia McGinnes. "She was a small filly" - a description that no longer fits, according to Dutrow - "and a late [May] foal, and she had to be tough, or the other fillies she was turned out with would pick on her and eat all the food," said McGinnes. "She grew up to be strong and athletic."

An all-Maryland product, Touch Love is from the third crop of her sire, Not For Love (by Mr. Prospector), who stands at Northview Stallion Station. Not For Love has also been represented by 2001 stakes winners Duckhorn, hero of the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, and Smile My Lord. Touch Love's maternal grandsire Smarten is a longtime leading Maryland stallion now pensioned at Northview.

Runners like Touch Love prove that "you don't have to go to Kentucky or spend a lot of money" to find a good horse, or breed one, said McGinnes. The McGinneses, longtime proprietors of Thornmar Farm in Chestertown, purchased Smartenof for $11,500 at the 1994 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic February mixed sale and bred four foals from her before Touch Love came along. None of her first four offspring was anything special. But the $17,000 the McGinneses got for selling Touch Love as a yearling put them in the black with Smartenof.

Smartenof, a foal of 1987, "was getting older, and we had a lot of mares, so we decided to sell her," said McGinnes.

Though if they had it to do again, the McGinneses might do it differently, they are delighted that Smartenof (in foal to Thornmar's stalwart stallion Horatius) has found a good home in Pennsylvania with her buyer at the February sale, Charles A. King Jr. "Now he has a stakes-producing mare, with a colt by Horatius at her side," said McGinnes. "This could be the beginning of something really good for him."