The O'Donovans of Upperco are proof positive that good things come to those who wait.
In the business of breeding thoroughbreds for more than 40 years and married for 60, they had never produced a graded stakes winner at a flat track. Until July 19, that is.
On that Saturday, Perfect Moon, a 2-year-old gelding out of the O'Donovans' mare Perfectly, came from behind to capture the Grade III Hollywood Juvenile Championship on the final weekend at Hollywood Park in California. As octogenarians, the O'Donovans had scored a major breakthrough.
"I was very happy about that," Hugh O'Donovan said. "I thought he had a good chance."
Perfect Moon, a third-generation member of a line of horses bred and raised at the O'Donovans' sprawling Grasslands Farm, was purchased at the Timonium yearling sales last fall by trainer Mel Stute for a mere $4,700. The gelding has already earned $93,870 after six starts.
Perfect Moon's freshman sire, Malibu Moon, an A.P. Indy stallion, stands at Country Life Farm in Bel Air. "Country Life is as excited as we are about it," O'Donovan said of the 2-year-old's win.
Long active in fox hunting and steeplechasing, O'Donovan and his wife, Achsah (pronounced Ox-ah, the Maryland name is of biblical origins, she said), have scaled back their operation in recent years. His health is not what it once was, and finding adequate help is not as easy as it once was.
On the mantel in their den stand four Maryland Hunt Cup trophies, three awarded to Hugh's father for victories in the early 1900s and the fourth won by Lancrel in 1956. Two years earlier, Lancrel, a French-bred horse purchased by the O'Donovans as a hunter, won the Virginia Gold Cup. Both times, teenager Frank Bonsal Jr. was the rider.
Now 66 and still riding occasionally, Bonsal said the O'Donovans "couldn't be better people. In my youth, I rode sometimes for them. Those were the two biggest wins. Hugh is one of the finest guys I've ever known. They don't get out and around much now."
Hugh O'Donovan was an amateur jockey of stature in steeplechasing circles during the 1940s and '50s. He finished second in several Hunt Cup races as a jockey, the last time aboard Captain Black in 1952, but never won the state's most prestigious timber race while in the saddle.
Maryland horse gentry to the core, the O'Donovans purchased their present home in 1959 and turned to breeding. Two years later, they sold their first foal, a colt, for $7,200, the highest-priced Tuscany progeny of the year. They were active sellers at Saratoga for years and remain involved in the sales here and in Kentucky.
They currently have Perfectly, who was never sound enough to race, a soon-to-be weaned full sister to Perfect Moon, and a yearling colt.
"Although we've always run on the flat, we weren't racetrack hangers," said Achsah O'Donovan. "Our preference has always been to have jumpers."
Hugh, who worked for a downtown brokerage firm, was highly active in the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association, serving as secretary-treasurer.
"He paid a lot of attention to our organization," said Snowden Carter, the now-retired general manager of the MHBA. "He signed the checks, so he was an important man to us."
"They called me `The Golden Arm' because of that," Hugh O'Donovan said.
Not that the O'Donovans didn't have some quality horses before Perfect Moon, but stakes races weren't graded until the 1970s and they had their share of bad luck.
"To me, they've been a little bit star-crossed in their breeding operation," Carter said. "It seemed like every time they had a horse that was going to bust through, something bad happened to that horse."
The stable's most notable runner before Perfect Moon was the 1966 foal Pit Bunny, a daughter of Hasty Road. Pit Bunny ranked among the leading 3-year-old fillies in 1969. She crossed the finish line ahead of the division's champion, undefeated Gallant Bloom, and highly rated Shuvee in the Delaware Oaks, but was disqualified. She was second in two other stakes, but was never officially a stakes winner.
When the operation was at its height, the O'Donovans housed as many as 30 horses on the farm with most of the new foals heading toward the sales.
Achsah is still spritely -- and sensitive about their age. "Don't say we're in the twilight years," she admonished.
If Perfect Moon can remain sound, there might be a lot more sunshine left for the O'Donovans.