When Sasscer Hill was growing up, she rode stick horses and plow horses and read "The Black Stallion" novels, a series of books about the friendship between a young boy and a beautiful black Arabian stallion. In the process, she fell in love — with horses and books and, eventually, writing.
On April 15, her novel "Racing from Death" is being released by Wildside Press. It is the second in a series about jockey/ assistant trainer Nikki Latrelle, a Laurel Park-based rider, who finds herself caught up in murder.
While Hill has been compared to Dick Francis and Sue Grafton, "Racing from Death" reflects the respect she has for horse racing and the influence of the late Walter Farley, the author of "The Black Stallion" series.
Hill's characters, some of whom are compilations of people she has known at tracks, come through as authentic, and her sentences are short and crisp. While full of description, she hands out Latrelle's background sparingly, building curiosity.
The book is a page-turner. In just 193 pages her jockey-detective must deal with someone killing jockeys with "diet cocktails," a burned body, an unwanted passionate attraction, a hidden methlab, an old family secret, and the disappearance of her friend and exercise rider Lorna. Oh, and then there's her job, which is to train and race a string of thoroughbreds for her boss, Laurel-based trainer Jim Ravinsky, at Colonial Downs in Virginia.
Hill said the book is about chasing a dream, helping the helpless and fighting the odds.
"It's those ideas that carry me along when I'm writing the stories," said Hill, whose full name is Lynda Sasscer Hill. "I read every Walter Farley 'Black Stallion' book when I was a little kid in grade school. I loved them for the way they made me feel. I want to write books like that, that entertain people. I want to write a good book that people want to retreat to — a 'Black Stallion' for adults."
Hill is an amateur steeplechase rider — and winner. She's ridden in fox hunts for 22 years and is also a horse breeder, who still lives on her family's farm, Pleasant Hills, in Upper Marlboro with her husband.
"You get to understand how horses behave and what people will do during a race to win," said Hill, 61. "You can feel a horse's fear and its bold heart. The way you feel the excitement during a [steeplechase] is very much the same as that on a flat track."
Thanks to her experience, the action in her book comes off as authentic — like this passage in which Latrelle rides her mount Stinger to a third-place finish:
"The gray moved alongside me, crowding me into the rail. I sat chilly, asking for restraint, and Stinger listened, allowing the favorite to go by. I waited. Then waited some more.
"We were through the turn at the top of the stretch, lying about sixth when I asked him. Stinger turned on the speed, rushing to the heels of the gray just ahead. I planned to use the favorite and hoped he'd live up to his short odds. He did, shoving his head into a nonexistent hole next to the rail, hammering through it. Mental "Yes!" as Stinger drafted in his wake ... We lay second ... at the wire, the second-favorite shoved his head forward, leaving us third by a whisker. ... But hey, we were supposed to be last."
Hill will be signing autographs in support of Susan G. Komen for the Cure in the grandstand area at Pimlico Race Course from noon to 2 p.m. on Black-Eyed Susan Day, Friday, May 18.
'Racing from Death'
by Sasscer Hill
Wildside Press, 193 pages, $14