By Katie Navarra
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
Nikki Latrelle’s life is so exciting she sounds like a character from the pages of a book. And that’s because she is a character — one that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
In her story, jockey Nikki Latrelle gets the chance of a lifetime: to ride the favorite horse in a stakes race. Her dream is destroyed when a mysterious intruder kills her mount the night before the race. Evil is at work at Maryland’s Laurel Park racetrack, and when Nikki stumbles over the body of a gunshot victim, she quickly becomes the prime suspect in a murder case. Framed and facing a possible murder rap, Nikki is ruled off the track.
Nikki Latrelle may be a fictional character found in author Sasscer Hill’s books, but the details describing Nikki’s daily experiences are often true-to-life descriptions of day-to-day life in Thoroughbred racing.
“Horse racing is a real inspiration for writing mysteries — the risk, the beauty, the speed, the endless opportunities for skullduggery and the extraordinary Upstairs Downstairs quality of the characters who inhabit the life,” said Sasscer, who lives in Aiken, South Carolina.
And there’s no one who knows the intimacy of Thoroughbred racing better than Sasscer. She’s been closely involved with the industry for more than 30 years as a jockey, breeder, owner and trainer.
An Early Start With Horses
Most children learn to ride aboard a beloved pony. Not Sasscer.
“My father didn’t like horses and considered ponies dangerous,” she said. So instead, she snuck rides on a 2,000-pound Belgian plow horse. “I drummed my heels on the mare’s sides while grasping whatever rope I managed to tie to her halter.”
Although Sasscer was upset by the loss of her father when she was 16 years old, the situation brought her into the horse industry. The wealthy horseman Alfred H. Smith Sr. took her under his wing. Alfred owned the two-time Eclipse Steeplechase Champion Tuscalee, and he and his family often took Sasscer to the races. He gave her an ex-steeplechase horse to foxhunt, which inspired a decades-long career as a steeplechase jockey.
She raced at the point-to-points at the many hunt clubs in Maryland and Virginia. As an amateur rider, she raced at Wicomico, Marlborough, Middleburg, Iron Bridge and Potomac. Her favorite win came over the timber fences at Potomac in 1986.
“The Smith family taught me so much about horses, riding, foxhunting and racing. They bred horses at their home, Blythewood, and watching those leggy foals develop into big, awe-inspiring race horses branded me for life,” she said.
She left Maryland for 10 years to attend college and strike out on her own. In 1979, she married and moved home to her family’s farm, Pleasant Hills, in Maryland. She bought her first broodmare, Swimming Home. Over the years, she continued steeplechase riding while building a breeding program, which produced 17 foals. Many of those foals went on to be winners at tracks like Laurel, Pimlico, Colonial Downs, Charlestown and Delaware Park.
Though there were many horses that made her proud, the colt For Love And Honor (Not For Love x In Her Honor) held a special place in her heart. “I pulled the colt out of his mother and used to long line him all over the farm as a yearling,” she said.
She sold him at a Fasig-Tipton auction as a 2-year-old in training and he went on to win $418,000 racing in New York at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct. “I watched every race he ever ran and his career became part of my identity. He made me so proud,” she said.
In The Genes
As a teenager, Sasscer was unaware of her family’s centuries-old connection to Thoroughbred racing. It wasn’t until her aunt, her father’s sister, told her that a love of racing was part of her family’s heritage. “She gave me the genealogy chart that proved I’m a direct descendant of Samuel Ogle, the last Colonial governor of Maryland,” Sasscer said.
Samuel brought the first racehorse to America from England. The mare’s name was Queen Mab, and she became the foundation mare of his stable. He loved the sport of Thoroughbred racing and introduced it to North America, staging the first English-style race at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1745.
He founded Belair Stud, a stable that continued to operate for more than 200 years, and produce such famous runners as Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and Omaha, as well as exceptional horses like Nashua and Johnstown.
Sasscer never considered her small Maryland breeding operation the continuation of a family legacy. It was simply something she loved.
Riding And Writing
In 1994, herniated discs forced Sasscer out of the saddle. Later, the stock market and Maryland racing crash of 2008 forced her out of the business.
“When I moved to Aiken, I was horseless but wanted to see if I could ride a slow and sensible horse without too much pain. I paid for a trail ride in the Hitchcock Woods and when I climbed on a big Belgian-Thoroughbred cross, I felt like I’d come home,” she said.
Some Aiken friends let her ride their Paso Finos and another friend let her ride a wonderful 17.3-hand Thoroughbred-Warmblood cross that’s both kind and quiet. “He’s heaven,” she said.
Though her time in the saddle is limited, Sasscer draws upon her memories while crafting scenes for her murder mystery series featuring Nikki Latrell.
“Writing makes me feel complete. When the writing goes well and I’m in the zone creating good scenes, anything that’s wrong in my life becomes unimportant,” she said.
Although it’s great to earn a little money on royalties, she finds it far more gratifying when one of her stories touches a reader’s heart. “One woman wrote to me that she’d been going through a really hard time in her life and my book helped her get through it,” she said.
Thanks to the readers who enjoy the page-turning, exciting life of her characters, in June 2015, Sasscer signed a two-book contract with New York publisher St. Martin’s Press for a new series featuring Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau agent Fia McKee. The first in the series, Flamingo Road will debut in March 2017. The second novel with the working title The Dark Side of Town is completed, and Sasscer will soon start a third in the series.
Flamingo Road has received rave endorsements from New York Times best-selling authors Tami Hoag and Margaret Maron, among others. The Dark Side of Town won the Carrie McCray 2015 Competition for First Chapter of a Novel, and was a runner-up for the 2015 Claymore Award nomination.
About the writer: Katie Navarra is a professional writer based in Upstate New York. She has been a lifelong horse lover and competes in ranch horse events with her dun Quarter Horse mare.