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COMMENTARY

SEPTEMBER 27, 2009

The Good Sheppard

by John Mucciolo

When asked to reel off the top trainer or trainers in the United States, the common answers include the likes of Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, John Sadler, Steve Asmussen, Richard Mandella et al, and deservedly so, but one name that tends to get overlooked is the genius known as Jonathan Sheppard. Born just outside of Newmarket in England, the 68-year-old conditioner is the son of a British racing official and got the racing bug himself, coming to the United States in his 20s to learn his craft. And learn it he did!

He saddled his first winner in 1966 and hasn't stopped since. In 1973, the Brit led the nation in money won by a steeplechase trainer, and he did so for a startling 18 years in succession, leading his division for every year through 1990. A truly remarkable feat! His mounts have banked more than $11 million in steeplechase events, more than twice the number of his nearest foe. It was in 1990 that Sheppard was deservedly enshrined into Thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame.

After dominating the steeplechase ranks, Sheppard figured to try his hand at flat racing, and the quick study picked up right where he left off. In 1985, he conditioned the legendary Storm Cat to a top freshman campaign that included a Grade 1 win and a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Aqueduct. A subsequent injury the following year forced the retirement of the promising, well-bred juvenile, and it was Sheppard's unquestionable genius that helped pave the way for Overbrook Farm owner W.T. Young to make the greatest move in his storied racing career -- standing Storm Cat at stud at his Lexington, Kentucky, farm rather than selling him.

"Back then, Mr. Young sold his horses rather than breed them," Sheppard said. "No one could have envisioned how great a sire Storm Cat would turn out to be, but my wife and I thought he had great potential at stud and we urged Mr. Young to keep him."

Another example of how the expert horseman has gotten the best out of one of his animals is the rapid ascension of champion Forever Together (Belong to Me). As many know, the classy gray was not always the easiest of fillies to work with, but Sheppard worked his magic once again. The quirky filly had issues with not sweating, so Sheppard started feeding her Guinness Beer because he said it helps to promote perspiration -- an added bonus is that she likes the taste and therefore never leaves an oat of her feed. Brilliant! The high-maintenance miss was also a handful in her training -- it was reported that she actually would stop in her tracks while galloping -- so Sheppard made an adjustment and transferred her to the green. The turf star has arguably been the top performer in her division for the past two seasons.

After Sheppard took over the training of Canadian Grade 1 victor Cloudy's Knight (Lord Avie) and brought him back from a one-year layoff to easily win the Kentucky Cup Turf S. (G3) on September 19, jockey Rosemary Homeister explained how the nine-year-old gelding accomplished the task: "(Sheppard) is the king of the turf."

One of only two conditioners to train a champion over jumps and on the flat, Sheppard has been on a huge roll over the past two years and holds a strong hand heading toward the 26th edition of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Santa Anita in early November. Multiple Grade 1 queen Informed Decision (Monarchos) is the best one-turn synthetic female in training not named Ventura (Chester House) and will be among the favorites in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1). Forever Together has come up short on a few occasions in 2009, but she's a model of consistency and excellence and her presence will almost definitely be felt as she looks to repeat in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1).

Just As Well (A.P. Indy) was vaulted from second to first in the Northern Dancer S. (Can-G1) on Sunday and is peaking at age five. Runner-up in the Arlington Million (G1) two starts back, Just As Well might be a cut below some of the best turf stayers from abroad, but he rates as one of the best in the United States and could still make a bid at the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) following the 1 1/2-mile Canadian International (Can-G1) on October 17. Sheppard could have three top threats leading into the Breeders' Cup, quite a feat.

The Good Sheppard is a living legend who has reinvented himself, and he should be given the respect he deserves. There is simply no one better!


 

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