By Terry Conway
Famous Jonathan Sheppard story: One winter morning longtime owner George Strawbridge, Jr. is watching a group of his young horses canter around the training track.
"I was really taken by a striking bay named Crowd Pleaser," confessed Strawbridge. "Well, Jonathan strolls up and says, ‘he's nice but he's better suited for heading into battle centuries ago. The one you need to pay attention to is that gray, he'll be one of your best horses.'"
With Anticipation – that gray -- won the 2002 Breeders' Cup Turf race, and twice captured the Sword Dancer and Man ‘O War Stakes. A fan favorite, he posted a 15-9-8 record in 38 career starts, retiring at age nine with career earnings over $2.6 million.
Point is, the man has an inner sense about racehorses. He knows how to read them, and how to keep them fit and happy. Sheppard and Strawbridge's Augustin Stable's top horses continued to find the winner's circle throughout 2009 as the trainer points toward the Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 6-7.
Number one star in Sheppard's barn is Forever Together. In mid-August she was the repeat winner of the $500,000 Diana Stakes at Saratoga, and will try for a repeat of the $400,000 First Lady Stakes in that Grade 1 race at Keeneland Racecourse on Oct. 10. The 4-year-old daughter of Monarchos won the 2008 First Lady before taking the last year's $2 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
"She likes Keeneland and trains well there," Sheppard said. "It's a flat-mile and it's a nice long stretch. That turf has a sandy base, which is a little easier on her."
Sheppard's got another gray/roan filly that's turning heads. Informed Decision improved to five-for-five on synthetic tracks with a 2 1/2-length victory in the $400,000 Presque Isle Masters in Erie, Pa., on the evening of Sept. 12. Accelerating on the turn under jockey Julian Leparoux she put the race away with a powerful surge at the top of the stretch. Her time of 1:15.10 was .06 off the track record in the 6 -1/2 furlong race.
Informed Decision's average margin of victory in five races on synthetic tracks is more than 3½ lengths, and she won those races against top competition in races such as the Lexus Raven Run Stakes, the Vinery Madison Stakes and Chicago Handicap (G3). She has now captured nine of 12 career starts, including four graded wins this year, and has joined the millionaires' club, pushing her bankroll to $1,081,617 in lifetime earnings.
How fast is Informed Decision?
"I would probably say, just for pure, raw speed, yes, she does resemble Storm Cat," Sheppard related. "When we put blinkers on her, all of a sudden she's a different horse. She's a running machine; it's just how God made her. It's odd because she's bred to go a mile and a half and she's by a Derby winner out of a His Majesty mare, so you never know. She's just very up, forward, and aggressive."
In early August the trainer opened some eyes with Just As Well's impressive runner-up performance to Gio Ponti in the $1 million Arlington Million contested at 1 ¼-mile.
"Just As Well was tracking the winner around the last turn but then Einstein weakened and dropped in front of him, which broke his stride slightly,'' Sheppard said. "I'm not saying we would have won, but he would have made it closer.''
Bred by Strawbridge, the owner decided to give the colt to Sheppard when he was paring down his stable.
"I told George, ‘I'll take him, he's a very well bred horse,'" recalled Sheppard with a chuckle. "He was a five-year old maiden and hadn't been on the track in 18 months because of major soundness issues. I turned him out with a bunch of old jumpers in a field at our farm. Time and nature took care of his health problems. It's really quite miraculous, he's never been sore again."
The trainer would need to ante up $70,000 to supplement the horse into the Breeders' Cup Turf race, which Sheppard said he's not inclined to do. Just as Well has got a champion half-sister and is from the family that produced Raven's Pass, the English horse that stormed home to win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic in 2008.
"Now I've got a stallion appeal," said Sheppard. " I'll run him again next year unless I get a great offer. Up at Saratoga I turned down a nice offer from Saudi Arabia connections. I think he would be quite popular here in Pennsylvania. We could all send our mares to him. It could be a lot of fun."
Yet another talented female in the Sheppard barn is Winter View. She 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-mile on the turf at Keeneland. She followed that with a victory at Colonial Downs then a disappointing sixth place finish at Delaware Park in July. Owned by Strawbridge, the five-year-old Winter View was transferred to Sheppard's barn after making her first 11 career starts in France. This will be her final year of racing.
Ashwell Stables is named for Sheppard's hometown in the East Midlands of England. Sheppard often rode as an amateur in point-to-point races while working in the family investment firm for a short stint. In 1961 he headed to America to pursue an amateur riding career and later landed a job with Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer Burley Cocks of Unionville. Six years later he embarked on a training career of his own at his farm near Unionville, Pa.
Up on the 926 Gallop— a rolling, grass course— a string of thoroughbreds charge past a border fence of post and rail, the thud of their hooves punctuated by blasts of their heavy breathing. The horses train like cross-country runners, surging over paths that extend up hills, down dales and around bends.
The trainer met Strawbridge at a dinner party in South Carolina in 1967 and things began to snowball from there. Sheppard was instrumental in changing the face of American steeplechasing, joining the Hall of Fame in 1990. He's the all-time leading steeplechase trainer in the United States: most career wins, most purse money earned, most championships, most Eclipse Award winners.
Storm Cat was one of Sheppard's earliest success stories at the track. Foaled at Derry Meeting Farm in 1983 Cochranville, Pa., Storm Cat was a precocious two-year old speedball that was beaten by a head in the 1983 Juvenile Breeder's Cup Race. Injured the next year, he began his great stud career at William T. Young's Overbrook Farm in Kentucky. Recently pensioned from his stallion duties, the prolific sire commanded the top U. S. stud fee of $500,000 for a number of years.
Jim Bergen worked for a private breeding farm in Chester County before coming to Ashwell a decade ago. Today, he manages the operation where Sheppard's stakes horses typically return after each race.
"They get to be horses," Bergen noted. "Roam around, roll around, pick some grass. They're active, and behave like horses. Racetracks are designed for efficiency and convenience for people. Being at a farm keeps the animals happy and if all goes well we're able to maintain their racing form."
"Horse are just like people; they have personalities and quirks," explained Bergen, who grew up outside Saratoga, N.Y. "They will do what you want them to do, unless they've had bad training. They're like a blank blackboard. You can put up good marks, or bad marks. They need a lot of positive reinforcement and to develop trust."
Over four decades Sheppard has worked his magic transforming hundreds of thoroughbred runners. He credits his mentor Burley Cocks for demonstrating how a trainer can 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," Sheppard explained. "His credo was that you have to see the best in a horse to get the best out of a horse."
Last year Sheppard had his hands full with his prized filly. Strawbridge, Forever Together's owner, tells the story of how she used to get so keyed up, so anxious, she couldn't sweat. On top of that the filly was a finicky eater.
When she starting balking in her training, actually stopping in her tracks in mid-gallop, Sheppard and his staff learned to be patient with the filly. When her form went off on the dirt because she resented the kickback of the surface in her face, the trainer switched her to the turf.
Sheppard started tinkering with her workouts. Tried to get her to relax. Then the trainer solved both of her physical riddles by adding a bottle of Guinness to the horse's daily feed. Brewed with some of the world's finest malt and barley, the frothy Irish stout both whets Forever Together's appetite and provides protein nutrients.
"This horse just loves the taste of Guinness," Strawbridge insists with a laugh. "Sheppard started mixing the Guinness with her food and she began sweating and started to eat the proper level of feed for a top-level competitor. She's been marvelous ever since."
With Forever Together's 2008 Eclipse Award, Sheppard joined fellow Hall of Famer Sidney Watters Jr. as the only men to train both a champion over jumps and on the flat.
As for Informed Decision, she defeated three other grade I winners in the Masters at Presque Isle over the Tapeta Footings racing surface. The 4-year-old daughter of Monarchos' fondness for synthetics (5-for-5) certainly bodes well for this year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint that will be run over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface in early November. She could run one more Breeders' Cup prep, the six-furlong Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes over Keeneland's Polytrack surface on Oct. 10.
Informed Decision's impressive performance in Erie came just two weeks after a third-place finish in Saratoga's Ballerina Stakes contested on a sloppy dirt track Aug. 29.
"George came up to Saratoga and started talking about her running at Presque," Sheppard related. "I didn't think it was a good idea, but then I slept on it and she really does love that track. The Ballerina took nothing out of her. A few days later she was squealing and carrying on and running away on the training track. So I was pretty confident she'd run her best."
The past two years have produced Sheppard's greatest run in his 42 years of training. In two successive years Augustin Stable bought two-year olds in training, Together Forever and Informed Decision, who turned into multiple Grade-1 winners.
"I don't know what's gone awry with my system," said Sheppard with a laugh, " but I'm going to enjoy it while I can."To contact horseracing writer Terry Conway, email Conway@dol.net