Momma mare carries hopes

Time to deliver: Mary Bo Peep, age 18, is one of 1,500 Maryland broodmares due to give birth this spring. If their breeders are lucky, some of those foals will grow up to be winners at the track.

April 07, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Head down, ears up, eyes closed, the pregnant broodmare dozes in the midday sun. Mary Bo Peep is asleep on her feet -- no easy task, considering the 90-pound thoroughbred stirring restlessly inside her.

Mary Bo Peep doesn't budge. She has given birth many times before, and the warmth feels good on her aging back. Nothing stirs save the unborn foal, kicking at its mother's sides. Her belly dancing, the old mare slumbers on.

It's spring and, like 1,500 other thoroughbred broodmares throughout Maryland, Mary Bo Peep awaits the stork. Across the state, horsemen pace barn floors like expectant fathers, anticipating the latest crop of wobbly foals on which to pin their racing hopes.

For Mary Bo Peep, the payoff is at hand. Bred 11 months ago to an expensive stallion, she is due to give birth tomorrow at Liberty Run Farm in southern Carroll County. To another Cigar? Who knows? Breeding racehorses is a genuine risk -- a crap-shoot, say experts, where the dice aren't rolled for two or three years hence.

"Mares with good pedigrees and good racing records are most likely to do well," says Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "But anything can pop out of a pedigree at any point."

In the end, he says, "Success is where you can find it."

Mary Bo Peep seems an unlikely source. A shy, slightly swaybacked 18-year-old mare with modest bloodlines and mediocre winnings ($19,000), she looks like a poster horse for the mucilage industry. Far from it. Of her seven race-age offspring, six have won at the track, two took stakes races and three have earned nearly $100,000 or more.

The best, 5-year-old Mary's Buckaroo, finished second in last year's prestigious Maryland Million Classic and has earned $300,000 -- more than 15 times a horse's average lifetime paycheck.

Ergo, the interest in Mary Bo Peep's foal-to-be.

Says Capps: "If a mare produces a couple of horses with six-figure earnings, she's got a chance to produce something really exceptional."

Blue-collar roots

Such dreams keep horsemen plugging, especially small-time owners like George Swope, a Baltimore pharmacist who bought Mary Bo Peep in 1982.

"I'm blue-collar and so is she," says Swope, 49, a Highlandtown resident who works at a Rite-Aid in Dundalk. "We both come from the wrong side of the tracks. That I'm proud of her goes without saying."

Mary Bo Peep was toiling at Delaware Park when Swope spotted her, a smallish roan filly from Nebraska who'd worked her way East, competing in cheap races on backwater tracks in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. She struggled on minor-league ovals, winning six of 48 starts. Mom would be proud: Mary Bo Peep's dam won just one race in 45.

Swope and a partner claimed the little horse for $6,500 and sent her back to the races. Mary Bo Peep fared poorly, backsliding each time out. Game but sluggish, she kept losing ground. It was as though she was running for two.

She was.

Swope still remembers the phone call from the racetrack. "Guess what?" his trainer said. "You're going to be a daddy."

Swope had unknowingly purchased a pregnant racehorse. Mary Bo Peep was scratched from her next race and foaled two weeks later, in the spring of 1983.

Her firstborn was "a big, beautiful colt," says Swope. Because he didn't know who the father was, Swope gave the colt away as a pleasure horse.

The mommy track

Mary Bo Peep never raced again. She landed at Liberty Run Farm and became a full-time broodmare. "Her breeding career began by accident, but we thought we'd give this a shot," her owner says.

Her first registered foals easily surpassed their mother in earnings at the track. Reason To Peep garnered $43,000; Turn To Teddy, $99,000; and Elegant Bo $151,000.

Mary Bo Peep had clearly found her niche: professional mommy.

To date, her offspring -- none of them sired by significant stallions -- have earned more than $660,000.

There have been setbacks. In 1992, her 4-month-old foal became ill and had to be destroyed. Veterinarians found a growth in the colt's intestines. Mary Bo Peep, who'd accompanied her little bay to the hospital, screamed long and loud when forced to leave without him.

"She was distraught for days," says Mary Joanne Hughes, Liberty Run's farm manager and trainer. "She walked all along the fence, worrying, looking for her baby. For weeks, every time she saw a foal, she thought it was hers."

Her handlers say Mary Bo Peep is a doting mother who keeps close tabs on her youngsters when people are nigh. "She lets us touch her foals, but she's watching us all the time," says Hughes.

Most poignant, she says, is the kinship between mother and newborn: "Mary nickers to her babies, real low and deep, like 'huh-huh-huh.'

"It's very emotional, like a wink between husband and wife."

Time growing short

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