by Terry Conwayne Bush
The name says it all.
Charging five paths wide, Forever Together swept to a convincing victory in her first race of the year, the $200,000 Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland Racecourse. The five-year old gray mare picked up right where she left off. Last October Forever Together captured the $2 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita Park.
Nearly forty-three years after they first joined forces, Chester County trainer Jonathan Sheppard and owner George Strawbridge, Jr. are still taking home the big pots.
Hall of Famer Sheppard notched five wins from nine starters (5-1-1) at the 2009 Keeneland spring meet, including three graded stakes. He also saddled Winter View to a win in the Bewitch Stakes (G-3) and Informed Decision in the Vinery Madison (G-1). You wonder if Sheppard could send out the stable dog and win.
Informed Decision earned her second Grade 1 win in a month on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Over a sloppy track she rallied from mid-pack late under jockey Julien Leparoux to snatch the lead less than 50 yards from the wire, winning by three-quarters of a length in the Grade I Humana Distaff.
"I was concerned about the wet track because she had never run on it," Sheppard admitted. "But she's such an aggressive, forward acting filly, I thought she might handle it. If we were going to find out if she could handle it, this was a good race to find out. I wouldn't have run her if the track wasn't safe."
Informed Decision has earned more than $500,000 in her career with six wins in eight starts.
"I've got a couple of races picked out, but we'll take some time to think about it. I think she can run longer, but she's so good at this distance (7 furlongs), I'm not sure I want to change anything."
As for Forever Together, Sheppard hopes to enjoy the same type of success as last year. The gray daughter of You Belong to Me earned $1,772,900 that included G-1 stakes victories in the Diana at Saratoga and the First Lady at Keeneland. She was voted 2008 champion female turf horse, winning an Eclipse Award for Strawbridge's Augustin Stable.
"Forever Together has more confidence this year," Sheppard said after the Jenny Wiley. "I think more poise, and I think she knows she's special. She looks like it, and she acts like it."
Sheppard has enjoyed particular success as a conditioner of turf horses. One of his best was With Anticipation that won the Man o' War, Sword Dancer twice and was runner-up in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Turf.
Back in 1968 Sheppard was just launching his public stable when he met Strawbridge at a dinner party in Camden, S. C. Born into a prominent Philadelphia family, Strawbridge sits on the board of the Campbell Soup Company. His mother Margaret was one of three daughters of Dr. John Dorrance, who developed the formula for commercially condensed soup in 1895.
Strawbridge learned to ride at age seven and is a former amateur jump jockey who won the prestigious Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tenn. four times. He rode until his mid-40s.
"I've found he's got a good eye and feel," said his English trainer John Gosden who trained Raven's Pass, the $5 million 2008 Breeders Cup Classic winner. "George has ridden jumpers and hunters so he has a strong knowledge of the workings of a nice horse.
"He has ridden and spent a lot of time around his stable," added Sheppard. "He doesn't interfere, and lets you get about your business. His loyalty to the game is quite remarkable."
Strawbridge and Sheppard teamed up with a pair of timber horses in 1968. Gaddo followed. An Irish-bred runner, Gaddo won 21 races in his career. It was the beginning of a steeplechase dynasty.
Leading American Trainer
Sheppard is the sport's all-time leading American trainer, topping the list of most career wins, most purse money earned, most championships, and most Eclipse Award winners. Strawbridge's Augustin Stable and Chester County's William Pape, often in partnership with Sheppard, have provided the trainer with the talent.
Increasingly in the early 1970s Strawbridge and Sheppard's attention turned to the flat-- they campaigned Mo Bay, who won or placed in nearly 20 mid-Atlantic stakes races. Strawbridge's Augustin Stable has been rolling up scores of victories ever since.
"George has given me free rein with my program," said Sheppard, a native of Ashwell, England. "If they look like they're not quite right physically or mentally for the rigors of racing, I guess I could be guilty of being too patient."
Trim and fit at age 71, Strawbridge resides in Cochranville, Pa. near Derry Meeting Farm where he keeps much of his stock.
"I know all about Sheppard's patience," said Strawbridge with a laugh. "Jonathan has produced so many good horses for me. He cares deeply about all of his horses. He spends as much time with the bad ones as he does with the good ones."
Headquartered at Ashwell Stables outside Unionville, Pa., Sheppard also has training operations at Delaware Park plus Camden S. C. and Gulfstream Park during the winter. Sheppard's strategy has traditionally been focused on older horses. However, this year his barn at Delaware Park will be loaded with promising Strawbridge 2-year old homebreds – the colts and fillies of top sires such as Smart Strike, El Prado, Giant Causeway, Empire Maker and Hennessy.
Taskmaster of a team of high-strung, half-ton flat runners and jumpers, Sheppard's work requires a watchmaker's patience, interspersed by moments of maddening frustration brought on by illnesses and injuries.
"My mentor Burley Cocks (a Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer) explained to me that he could get inside a horse's mind. Rather than force them, he would work around a problem, always looking for a horse's best qualities and tendencies. His credo was that you have to see the best in a horse to get the best out of a horse."
Sheppard has got another talented female in the barn. Winter View unleashed an explosive last-to-first rally, and powered past three foes in the stretch to score her first stakes victory in the $150,000 Bewitch Stakes (G3) at 1 ½-miles on the turf at Keeneland.
The five-year-old Winter View was transferred to Sheppard's barn after making her first 11 career starts in France, where the chestnut mare earned one win. Winter View is now 4-1-3 from 20 starts with earnings of $206,379.
Strawbridge's green and white silks have been familiar in Europe for nearly three decades. He won the 1994 Breeders' Cup Turf with homebred Tikkanen, who was tutored by Chantilly-based trainer Jonathan Pease, based in France.
These days Strawbridge boasts a pair of stars in Europe. Rainbow View, a half sister to Winter View, was named the 2008 European champion two-year-old filly. The homebred Dynaformer filly came up fifth in the One Thousand Guineas on May 2.
"She hated the ground," trainer John Gosden told the Racing Post. "It's nobody's fault. We've had an incredibly dry spring here so the ground is very firm. (Her jockey) Jimmy Fortune said after three and a half to four furlongs she was in trouble.
"We will look at races like the Irish One Thousand Guineas (Ire-G1) and Epsom [Oaks (Eng-G1)] in early June when we get good ground for her and you'll see her right back to her best."
Strawbridge's other top European filly, Fantasia, could finish only third in the French 1,000 Guineas at Longchamp Racecourse outside Paris the weekend after Rainbow View's race. A lack of pace in the race did her in. Fantasia is being pointed to the Prix de Diane (Fr-G1) at Chantilly in mid-June.
Last year Strawbridge took home the Cartier Award, the most coveted within European horseracing.
"That was a huge honor and it is the most prestigious award I've ever, ever received," Strawbridge acknowledged. "It is prestigious for the Cartier name. To receive an award like that is truly rewarding considering there are so many good animals, so many good trainers and riders, and so many generous owners. It is outstanding."
The Chester County owner has high hopes for his American champion Forever Together whose victory in the Jenny Wiley Stakes was her eighth win in 15 starts and bumped up her earnings to $2,128,533.
"It was a nice way to start the year," Strawbridge said. "Forever Together looks like the champion she is."