Starred Review, Hot off the Press from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM)
*** Sasscer Hill: Full Mortality, Wildside, $13.95. "Jockey Nikki Latrelle, compelled to visit her upcoming stakes mount Gilded Cage late one night at Laurel Park, finds the mare dead in her stall. Other equine and human deaths follow. First-time novelist Hill, herself a Maryland horse breeder, is a genuine find, writing smooth and vivid descriptive prose about racetrack characters and backstretch ambience that reek authenticity. Familiar plot elements are gracefully handled, including that old romantic-suspense conundrum: which of the attractive but mysterious males is the good guy and which the villain?" -- Jon L. Breen, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
EQMM is, “The best mystery magazine in the world, bar none.” – Stephen King
Above, Sasscer Hill signing at the "Equiery" Magazine Twentieth Anniversary Christmas Party on December 10, 2010. Twenty years ago, I was taking ads in the Equiery soliciting clients who needed me to haul their horses somewhere! Times change.
Pictured next, Sasscer Hill on December 17 with the Outflanker yearling colt Out Smarten. Can you say cold!
Sasscer Hill's horse racing mystery, receives rave reviews on HRN, Lexington, Kentucky's popular online radio station, HorseRadioNetwork.com.
The book is now available not only as a paperback from both Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, it is also downloadable as an E-book on both sites. This horse racing mystery is also available from the e-book sellers Mobipocket.com and Fictionwise.com
George Strawbridge, Sasscer Hill and hall of famer, Jonathan Sheppard, before Bushwhacked's race, October 23.
Though Strawbridge was absent October 22, his homebred filly, Fugitive Angel, captured the Grade III Pin Oak Valley View Stakes with a flying finish, eating up ground and destroying the competition in the final yards. In doing so, the bay daughter of Alphabet Soup won the Keeneland gold tray, reportedly solid gold and worth $100,000, for her owner, George Strawbridge.
The tray is presented to owners who have won eight graded stakes at the track. It’s been claimed only 15 times previously, and Strawbridge became the first owner to receive the award since Michael Tabor in 2008.
The amazing group I call “Team Sheppard” headed by legendary genius and hall of fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, carefully brought along Strawbridge’s homebred filly, turning her into a powerhouse.
Maryland’s own Anna Napravnik figures prominently in the victory. "She is definitely improving. She is a very quality filly," said Napravnik, who was riding the bay filly for the third time. Napravnik also won the day's fifth race aboard another Strawbridge horse, the 3-year-old filly Kitty Love.
Anna "Rosie" Nabravnik
Some might say George Strawbridge needs a $100,00 gold tray like I need a fork in my eye. Truth be told, the man has done much for the sport of racing. His wealth allows him to own quality horses, and treat them like quality horses. He is patient, allowing a horse a year or more turn-out time if necessary. Owners like Strawbridge help us fight the negative press racing has been afflicted with in recent years. I’m glad he got a gold tray!
Team Sheppard saddles Fugitive Angel
A jockey change before "Angel's" race had the riders hanging about while waiting on the replacement jockey.
Sasscer Hill and Paula Marie Weglarz celebrate Fugutive Angel's win.
A Matt Wooley photograph.
As I was admiring the accomplishments of Zenyatta, I was reminded about Gallorette ( trained by my uncle, Edward A. Christmas),and decided to Google "Gallorette", and below are notes from some of the resulting web pages. One has a recent newspaper article comparing their accomplishments. I had forgotten that Gallorette raced 72 times, 55 of which were against males, where she finished in the top three.
Until her retirement at the end of 1948, Gallorette ran most of her races in unrestricted company. Of her seventy-two career races, fifty-five were against males — she had twenty-one wins and finished in the top three fifty-four times. She consistently ran against the best males of her era: Armed, Stymie, Assault, Pavot, and Polynesian, to name a few. Her most significant wins came in the Met Mile and the Brooklyn, Carter, and Whitney Handicaps. She retired as the all-time female money winner with earnings of $445,535.
In 1955, Gallorette was voted the best filly or mare of all-time in a poll of members from the American Trainers Association. She was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1962.
While we are lucky to have Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta to watch in 2010, caution needs to be given before we call either of them the greatest filly or mare of all-time — neither will match Gallorette’s record or the level of competition she faced on a regular basis. In fact, with the overly-cautious campaigns that dominate modern throughbred training, we’ll likely never see another one like Gallorette. If anyone wants to call her to the greatest race mare ever, you won’t get an arguement from me.
A note from Sasscer Hill: Now you know why Gallorette figures so prominently in my Nikki Latrelle mystery,
The 25th annual Maryland Million drew a crowd of 23,367, the ninth best in its history. I’ve never seen more perfect weather – sunny, very light breeze and upper sixties. In the past, I’d be on the rail, or at just outside the paddock, staying close so I could soak up the action – hear it, see it, feel it. This year, I was chained to my table selling copies of FULL MORTALITY. My personal philosophy of life: everything’s a trade off. I was thrilled to be signing my mystery book, but sad to be away from the horses.
My lifelong friend, Kitsi Christmas, showed up to help manage the cash during the sales.
John Scheinman meets Kitsi Christmas
She is a member of the famous -- or infamous, depending on which Christmas you are talking about – family of Maryland horsemen. Her father was the trainer of the legendary Gallorette, her aunt was the first woman racing columnist in America and there’s more to say, but I’ll stop here. Laurel had a Maryland Million hat giveaway yesterday, and Kitsi and I spent much of the day pointing toward the location of hat distribution and/or the closest restroom. We felt useful. I’m accustomed to this sort of thing, due numerous book signings. But Kitsi, sitting at a table with a display of books and two signs explaining, “NEW HORSE RACING MYSTERY ON SALE NOW!” was incredulous. About the time the fiftieth person asked us if we were giving out the hats, she finally snapped. “No.We are selling books!” The poor man did not buy a book; he bolted. Around twelve-thirty we got hungry, and I got us two dubious looking slices of pizza from the track’s food court. We ate some at the book table. We did not feel elegant.
Then John Scheinman brightened our day tremendously by showing up and rescuing us from the pizza.
He parked himself next to the table, yelling like a newsboy in a Sherlock Holmes scene, “FULL MORTALITY. Get it here. FULL MORTALITY.” More people scurried away. But Scheinman got Tom Ventsias to give me a pass up to the press room. Following Tom’s directions, I found a narrow doorway with a tiny sign and pointing arrow that said “Press Box.” Inside and around a corner, I faced what looked like a small freight elevator door. I pushed the button – there was only one. Noise, distant banging, and a thump later the door opened. Wow, a real live elevator operator with a cap. He opened the door by hand and was concerned when I wasn’t on his pass list. I convinced him I was legit, and up we went.
News media, chart makers, and stewards closely watch a Million race. Notice the chain across the window? Is it there to keep newsmen from throwing themselves out the window when they bet the wrong horse? Or is it because they didn’t know my book is finally published and they were afraid I would jump?
Boy did those press guys have a spread – crab cakes, salad, deli-ham, sliced beef, and cheese. Fresh fruit and Dove bars. I was so excited to finally make it into the press box, I could hardly stand myself. Probably nobody else up there could either. But I was in rare air, high in a place where the likes of Beyer, Haskin and other journalistic greats get to hangout.
Chart maker and chart caller respond to Sasscer’s annoying photo taking.
I ran around taking pictures, then loaded a plate up with crab and coleslaw. Back in the tiny, jolting elevator, when the operator slammed us to a stop at the bottom, I was afraid the food had become a hair ornament. It hadn’t, and Kitsi’s eyes lit up when she saw those crab cakes. After tossing the remnants of the pizza into the trash, we scarfed down the cakes and slaw. Several people stopped at the table and wanted to know where they could get crab cakes. “I don’t know anything about crab cakes,” Kitsi said. “Would you like to buy a book?” Happily, we sold a healthy number of copies, while Maryland pulled in a good handle and experienced a most excellent day of racing!
A tractor trailer rolls in a rock band to please the crowd.
Sunday, September 19, John Scheinman nabbed tickets for my husband and I to attend a screening of the new Disney film, “Secretariat.” Scheinman is the farsighted writer that the nearsighted Washington Post laid off. He may be their best, last-known horse-racing beat-writer. Scheinman introduced Randall Wallace, an Oscar-nominated writer of screenplays and a film director who has worked with actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons and Mel Gibson, saying, “Randall knows what to do when he gets his hands on a rousing story.” Wallace surely had one with Secretariat and his feisty owner, Penny Chenery.
Sasscer Hill and Film Director Randall Wallace
I remember 1973 well. There were no women CEO’s in 1973, and Penny Chenery was up against it. Back then, I was the executive secretary for an all male DC aerospace industry association, which means I took the minutes at their meetings and served coffee. None of those men took me seriously, even when they couldn’t understand the monthly financial report, and I had to explain it to them. How could Penny Chenery’s persona in this movie not resonate with me? Scheinman sat next to me in the theater and was obviously moved by the film. I sniffed my way through it, not because of the sad parts like the death of Penny’s father, but because of this colt’s phenomenal ability to touch human emotion, and because this movie is about themes I cherish -- fighting the odds and following your heart. Wallace brings it all home. The director totally gets the comradery and competition among horse players, owners, trainers and backstretch workers. He nails the fact that many horses are natural born comedians, and though Scheinman probably identifies with the characters of real-life reporters, William Nack and Andrew Beyer, I suspect he struggled not to howl in the scene where Secretariat hoses Beyer with horse pee. It’s hard for me, a horse woman, to give an objective review of this film. I’ve experienced a horse, that I both bred and pulled out of his mother, win my first race for me at Pimlico. I know the tension, the hope, and the fear far too well not to be moved by this movie. But here’s the thing, I knew exactly what was going to happen in each of Secretariat’s races, and I was still on the edge of my seat. My husband, Daniel Filippelli, said he hadn’t been this moved by a film since he watched Kenneth Branagh’s Saint Crispin’s speech in Shakespeare’s “Henry the Fifth.” Could there be a more favorable comment? When I stepped into the lobby afterwards, I looked at the people around me. They were all pumped, like when I walked out of the first "Star Wars" movie. And many of the people in that theater were not horse people. Some reviewers get hung up on the absolute accuracy of historical details, but Wallace has not made a documentary. He has produced a great, entertaining film that will allow more people to understand the beauty and power of horse racing. I think Randall Wallace is about to have a hit on his hands.
William Nack, pictured to the right above with Thomas Foley, is the author of, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.” The new movie was based on Nack’s book.
Thomas Foley, center, pictured below with Grant Witacre and Sasscer Hill, landed the role of exercise rider Jim Gaffney. Foley is the author of the soon-to-be-released book, “The Simple Game, An Irish Jockey’s Memoir.” Published by Caballo Press, the book comes with two “Secretariat” movie tickets at Caballopress.com. Grant Whitacre portrays Paul Feliciano, who rode Big Red in his first two career starts as an apprentice, before the connections turned to the more experienced Ron Turcotte.
On October 13, I fly to San Francisco for the huge Bouchercon Mystery Writers conference with its cornucopia of best selling and seasoned authors. These pros write for big New York publishers like Random House, Simon and Schuster, Penguin, and St. Martin’s Press. Most of these authors have multiple books out and large followings of fans. Their books are available in hard bound copies, followed a year later by massive print runs of paper editions.
Then there is me, Sasscer Hill, published by the small Rockville, Maryland outfit, Wildside Press. Nobody, has ever heard of Sasscer Hill or her first book, FULL MORTALITY, a trade-paperback horse-racing mystery.
In my heart I hear the acoustic guitar of Jimmy Page, the magical voice of Robert Plant and the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s 1971 classic, “Going to California.”
Broken pieces of the lyrics play in my head as I plan my trip -- words like, “Took my chances on a big jet plane . . .”
The dreamlike, taking-risks quality of this song resonates with me, a new author traveling to the big time with her paperback book in hand. Since I’m with a small press with a no-returns policy, none of the booksellers at the conference will take a chance by pre ordering the book to sell at the convention. I’m forced to pack books in my suitcase and hope I can sell them on consignment.
If I’m lucky enough to get a signing through a convention bookseller, no doubt I’ll be in the same room at the same time, with the likes of Michael Connelly, Robert Crais and the ghost of Stieg Larsson. I hear Led Zeppelin again . . . “I might be sinking. Throw me a line. If I reach it time . . .”
I’m trying hard to get on a panel at Bouchercon, but the competition for these slots is immense. Did I tell you I am an unknown? My book comes out officially on October 15, right smack in the middle of this conference. If I had some cash, I would host a small party to celebrate the launch of FULL MORTALITY, to let folks know it is available in book stores and as a download on Kindle and Ipad. But there is no cash. When I think like this, Robert Plant is singing, “Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams, telling myself It’s not as hard, hard – hard as it seems.”
Still, I can do this! I’m a darn good writer, my book is better than average, and I will make friends out there. I will tell myself it’s no big deal. I will follow my heart and chase my dream.
After entering the Borders Books on Broadway and studying the mystery selections, fellow Sisters in Crime member and blogger extradonaire, Rhonda Lane, and I narrowed our choice down to the two books on this table.
We made a tough decision and chose Sasscer Hill's FULL MORTALITY.
Amazingly, the number one assistant to Hall-of-Fame trainer,Jonathan Sheppard, Mr. Barry G. Wiseman chose the same book!
After taking the book to the Adelphi Hotel to read in the courtyard, we found it so good, we were shocked and I'm afraid that we gawked!
CHAPTER ONE Chasing the dream, I tapped the thin whip on the mare’s left shoulder. She switched leads and opened up down the stretch. Wind blew her mane into my face. The dirt track ahead was empty, and I could hear the field battling for second place behind us. The first murmur of the grandstand roar teased my ears. I could almost smell the mare’s determination. Then the vision fragmented, dissolving as my eyes slid open. The bedside clock read 12:45 A.M. My twisted sheets suggested a whirlwind had whipped through the bed, leaving my jaw tight and strained. Sleep remained a longshot. I pulled on some jeans, shrugged into a T-shirt, grabbed the Toyota’s keys, then paused in midstride. A framed photo stood on my dresser. Me, Nikki Latrelle, aboard a muscular Thoroughbred, my face lit with a laser-bright smile. My first win. I saluted the picture and said, “Make it happen tomorrow.” The beautiful mare of my dream, Gilded Cage, was my ticket. Incredible that I’d be viewing the racetrack between her classy ears the next day. Her regular jockey had broken a collarbone eight hours earlier, and I’d captured the ride. I didn’t like the circumstances behind this miracle, but wild horses couldn’t drag me from a chance like this. I worked as a daily exercise rider for Gilded Cage’s trainer, Jim Ravinsky. When the mare’s jockey fell in the ninth, Ravinsky talked the owner into putting me up on the big horse in the $200,000 Venus Stakes race. I grabbed an elastic band and stuffed my dark hair into a ponytail. I needed to see Gilded Cage, the mare we all called “Gildy.” Wanted to feel her proud confidence, let my fingertips vibrate with her magical energy. Maybe then I could settle down and sleep. Outside my apartment the August night enveloped my skin like warm molasses. Somewhere in the tree canopy overhead, a cicada reached a crescendo, paused, and began again. The dream had left me thirsty, and after deciding on a detour for a diet soda at the 7-Eleven, I climbed into my blue Toyota and cranked the engine. Late-night treats were okay as long as I didn’t slide over racing weight. Inside the shop, a thin-faced guy with a gold earring stared as I walked in. He leaned against the counter, giving me a long appraising look that settled on my chest. Oops. I’d pulled on the thin white cotton T-shirt, forgetting to wear a bra. Exasperated, I clutched my purse to my chest, marched to the soda dispenser, and pushed the Diet Coke lever. A candy stand lay in wait between me and the cashier. My resolve crumpled. Hershey’s, cheap but effective. Besides, Gildy was the favorite and carried top weight in the race tomorrow. I grabbed a chocolatewith-almonds and paid the woman behind the counter. The guy with the golden earring moved closer. As I left, he said, “Beautiful evening, really sweet.” The unwanted attention stirred up the past. I double-timed it out to my car, drove down Route 198 to Brock Road, and entered Laurel Park’s backstretch after flashing ID at the startled security guard. Nobody hung around this late. Only the horses sleeping in the dark stables laid out like dominoes along the paved road. Dirt paths intersected the pavement and disappeared in the darkness toward the vast, mile-oval track. At night, the race course remained invisible, but I could sense its expanse. Closer to Ravinsky’s barn, cooler air spilled through the car’s window. A reminder of coming winter and the frigid northwest winds that cracked my skin in the predawn cold. I shivered, then braked suddenly. A light glimmered halfway down Ravinsky’s barn aisle. No one should be there. A finger of fear touched me. The horses. I left the car and hurried across the wet grass into the shedrow, the rich scents of hay, manure, and sweet feed saturating the night air. Nearing the stall spilling light into the darkness, my senses heightened. Gildy’s stall. A man’s silhouette emerged from the glow, then froze. I paused. “Who —” I demanded. He ran straight at me. Before I could get out of his way, he knocked me down hard. Air whooshed from my lungs. Rolling over, I sucked in a gasping breath, then climbed to my hands and knees. His back vanished into the darkness. “You son of a bitch!” I gasped. What had he done? Scrambling to my feet I jerked open the door to Gildy’s stall. The mare was down, not moving. I sank to my knees and placed my cheek next to her nostril. No warm breath, nothing. I pressed my ear to the fur on her rib cage. No heartbeat, only silence. “Gildy, no.” With a half sob, I ran to Jim’s office. My key unlocked the door. With fingers fumbling, I punched the phone number for security. Five long rings before they picked up. Voice stammering, I told them what had happened. They came running. I met them at Gildy’s stall. They stared at the mare and called the police. An Anne Arundel County officer with close-cropped hair had me sit in his cruiser while he filled out a report. The scent of stale cigarettes clung to the upholstery. “Can you give me a better description of the person who knocked you down?” “He came at me so fast.” How could Gildy be dead? “Was he heavy? Tall?” Who would do such a thing? “Average, average. You’re making me feel inadequate here.” The officer shifted in his seat, his leather holster squeaking, keys and cuffs jangling. He smiled for the first time. “I’ve had worse descriptions.” His radio crackled; he paused, listened, then chose to ignore it. “Got to tell you, a dead horse, even one as valuable as you say this one is, won’t be a high priority. I’ll check with track security tomorrow evening and see what the vet’s necropsy reveals.” He handed me a card. “If you think of anything else, call me.” I slid from the car and watched the taillights on his cruiser disappear. One of the track security guys, Fred something, lingered outside Gildy’s stall. He walked over. “Tough break. Wasn’t you riding her in the Venus tomorrow?” I nodded. “Listen,” he said, “Ronny’s gonna be back with some crew and the truck. You might wanna leave before they put the winch on and drag her out.” My lips twisted. “I don’t want to see that.” My legs shook going back to the car. Another shattered dream, and not just for me. I still had to call Jim. At six the next morning, Ravinsky’s shedrow seemed strangely quiet. Usually Jim’s barn overflows with noise, color, and motion. Bits jingle, hooves clatter, and chestnut, bay, and dappled gray coats gleam in the sunlight. The grooms and hotwalkers gossip and joke while consuming quarts of coffee and boxes of doughnuts. They wash the bright-colored leg-bandages and saddle-towels as steam from the hot water rises in the air. Laundry hangs in strips of color along the shedrow to dry in the morning sun. Today the picture played in black-and-white, the sound muted. Two grooms stopped their quiet talk when they saw me. I nodded at them and headed toward the office. Jim sat at his desk sipping a 7-Eleven coffee. I’d gotten used to his taciturn manner, but today a gloom enveloped him that stopped me in the doorway. The usual clutter of vet bills, Racing Forms, and bloodstock magazines littered his desk. A bottle of liniment, some halters, and a stopwatch sat one one of the metal office chairs. The other chair was occupied by a fat orange tabby cat, currently comatose. “I know how much Gildy meant to you,” I said. He stared at his Styrofoam cup. Behind him, confined by glass and picture frames, a row of horses, members of the racing Hall of Fame, gazed at me from the past: Secretariat, John Henry, Citation, Man o’ War, and the lone female, Gallorette. A chestnut mare. Jim always said Gildy reminded him of this classic racehorse from the 1940s who somehow beat the leading male horse, Stymie. Beat him three times. Jim crushed his cup, tossed it into the trash. “Gildy might a been the best horse I ever trained.” He was tall and thin. Today his shoulders appeared stooped, his eyes hollowed. Bushy brows, sprinkled liberally with gray, were easily the most expressive feature on his face. Rogue hairs strayed up his forehead, and there’d been times I’d swear they were waving at me. The light filtering through the dusty office window revealed features shadowed, and drawn tight with pain. “You said you saw the bastard?” “I don’t even know if it was a man or a woman.” I slid the snoring cat over and slumped into the remaining chair-half. A sharp tangy scent from the liniment bottle drifted in the air. “Have you heard if the vet found —” “Necropsy results might come in this afternoon. We’ve got other horses to get out.” He nodded toward the door, pushed his bent frame from the metal chair behind the desk, and went out. He’d finished talking. A few minutes later I rode out onto the track with Kenny Grimes for the morning’s first set. Kenny was small, wiry, and sat his horse with easy skill and confidence. He’d had a jockey’s license and ridden races for a while, but had found the game too rough. Now he just rode as an exercise rider in the mornings. “Don’t do it,” he’d told me when I first planned to get a jock’s license. “Those boys will cut you off and box you in. You get a live mount, they’ll gang up on you. Being a girl won’t cut you any breaks.” I’d ignored him and, though people said I had magic hands and a reckless courage on horseback, I’d had a tough time. After the first jock’s room brawl, I’d bought some steel-toed boots and used them on a particularly obstructive, testosterone-laden rider, earning some respect and maneuvering room. But I wanted to rise above that. Winning on Gildy would have boosted my career. I snapped back to the business at hand as we approached the half-mile pole. Kenny and I sat lower in our saddles, our hands and heels getting real busy asking our mounts for speed. A stiff breeze whipped at us from the infield, carrying an earthy scent that lingered on the nearby, freshly watered turf course. The rhythm of the Thoroughbred’s gallop usually lifts my spirits with a high only surpassed by racing. Today, as we rounded the turn and accelerated down the stretch, I felt a heaviness. No joy, only regret. And beneath that, anger. My jaw tightened. I white-knuckled the reins, telegraphing rage to the colt beneath me who bolted forward in sweeping strides. I wanted to know who’d killed Gildy. I wanted to get the bastard. End, Chapter 1 ########################################################## FULL MORTALITY,now available at Amazon.com
To order directly from Wildside Press, paste the following link into your browser: http://www.wildsidebooks.com/Full-Mortality-A-Nikki-Latrelle-Racing-Mystery-by-Sasscer-Hill-preorder_p_3969.html When ordering from Wildside, be sure to use the COUPON word “HORSE” to get an ADDITIONAL DISCOUNT!
Sasscer Hill’s newest novel, published 2-11-20, TRAVELS OF QUINN, is a mystery-thriller of deceit, murder, greed, and hope. Sasscer is working on a fifth novel in the Nikki Latrelle mystery series, SHOOTING STAR. In addition to her award winning Latrelle series, she has published the two-book Fia McKee series. FLAMINGO ROAD of this series won the $10,000 Ryan Award for Best Book in Racing Literature. Sasscer has also written several mystery/suspense short stories and a number of articles in publications like the "Mid-Atantic Thoroughbred."
Find all Sasscer Books at https://www.sasscerhill.com/books
CONTACT SASSCER HILL: Hillerroo@gmail.com