Steeplechasing's grand old man is gone. Four-time champion steeplechaser Flatterer, the oldest Eclipse Award winner and Thoroughbred Hall of Famer, died Tuesday at owner Bill Pape's My Way Farm near Unionville, Pa. The Pennsylvania-bred was 35.
Born in 1979, Flatterer won four times in 18 starts on the flat as a 3-year-old for Pape and trainer Jonathan Sheppard but truly blossomed as a 4-year-old steeplechaser in 1983. He went from spring maiden winner to champion thanks to wins in the Grand National, Temple Gwathmey and Colonial Cup stakes. It was the first of four consecutive Eclipse Awards for Flatterer, who finished with a career mark of 24 wins in 52 starts and $534,854 in earnings.
"To have a horse like that is just a dream of a lifetime," said Pape. "I equate him to Secretariat and horses like that in the flat world. He was Secretariat over fences. You couldn't have asked for more from a horse. He gave us all that he had."
Flatterer leaves behind a legacy of excellence and a racing career without peer. Bred by Pape and Sheppard, Flatterer was by Mo Bay (whom Sheppard trained to stakes wins on the flat for Augustin Stable) and out of the Nade mare Horizontal.
"It's always sad, sad when one of your horses dies or one of your dogs dies or anything dies but he had a remarkable life," said Sheppard. "None of us are going to last forever. He lived a great life."
Sheppard frequently called Flatterer the best he ever trained, but the horse is also just as frequently considered the best American steeplechaser anybody ever trained. He won a then-record four championships, carried heaps of weight, won the country's best races, performed admirably in two starts overseas, traveled on all types of ground at all distances and was a one-horse advertisement for jump racing in the United States during a boom in the mid-1980s.
He'd lived at Pape's farm for the last 25 years, doing some dressage work, staying busy and generally being loved. He rarely showed his age. This past winter was hard on horses and humans, and Flatterer was no exception. He didn't look as good as he did in the fall, and didn't bounce back this spring.
"His blood count was normal and other tests were good, but we just didn't want him to get to the point of lying down and not being able to get up again or something," said Sheppard. "Apart from the way he looked, he was fine. The vets said it was probably nothing more than his systems kind of shutting down. He was an old horse, we talked about it and decided to take the final step."
Flatterer was euthanized and buried at the farm, in his field. Pape felt the death like the loss of a close friend, as Flatterer the retiree brought as much joy as Flatterer the racehorse.
"It's a tough one, but what am I going to do?" he said. "He lived for 35 years, 25 of them right here in the same field. I have so many memories. When I walked out of the house, he knew I had a pocket full of sugar and he would come over to the fence, always. He was just a fun horse to be around, a happy horse."
Flatterer ruled American jump racing for four seasons - winning 16 jump races. He retired as the career earnings leader with $421,146 and is still ranked in the top 25. His four championships were a record until Lonesome Glory won five in the 1990s. No other horse has won four Colonial Cups, the season-ending Grade 1 stakes on the calendar since 1970. Flatterer carried 170 pounds or more to victory three times, including a record 176 in the National Hunt Cup at Radnor in 1986.
Beyond U.S. borders, Flatterer earned respect for seconds in the French and English Champion Hurdle races of 1986 and 1987, respectively. The feats cannot be underplayed, nor could they have been more different.
In France, Flatterer took on 3 3/16 miles of stiff fences at Auteuil. The ground was soft, the heat oppressive, the competition strong. Sheppard called it perhaps Flatterer's best race, even in defeat.
"We walked the course the day of the race and agreed that if we hadn't shipped halfway across the world for the race we would have scratched him," Sheppard said. "The ground was absolutely bottomless."
Flatterer ran anyway, and pushed French horse Le Rheusois home. The American lost by 5 lengths, defeated but hardly beaten.
"He ran so hard that after the race back at the barn having his bath, my daughter Diana had her hand on his hip holding him up," said Sheppard. "She and (assistant trainer Graham Motion) were afraid he was going to fall down. He tried that hard. What a remarkable effort he gave. He was good, but he was also game and tough."
The next year, Sheppard targeted the Cheltenham Festival and England's Champion Hurdle. The race is 2 miles, over smaller fences, with a stout uphill finish. Flatterer was again a noble second, to three-time race winner and English hurdling star See You Then. Flatterer hadn't run since November's Colonial Cup, and Sheppard told jockey Jerry Fishback to be conservative considering the competition and the stamina-sapping Cheltenham course.
"I should have had more faith in my training or he might have won it," Sheppard said Wednesday, sounding like he wanted another chance.
Still, Flatterer came to the last hurdle in second and going after See You Then. The English champion flew it, Flatterer met it in a middling spot and skipped through. The window was just enough as See You Then won by 1 1/2 lengths over a game and gaining Flatterer.
"He kept staying on and galloping right up to the line," said Sheppard. "That was another remarkable effort. The two best races he ran might have been two of the few races he actually lost. They were superb efforts. On your own ground, doing your own thing against horses you run against at home, running in top-class races is difficult. To do it away from home, on unfamiliar ground and over unfamiliar fences is something special."
Flatterer came home to America a hero, but his career was nearing an end. He finished third, while carrying 178 pounds, at Middleburg a month after Cheltenham and then won the $100,000 Iroquois with ease. Given the summer off, he romped in a flat race at Great Meadow as a prep for the $250,000 Breeders' Cup in October. He started as the heavy favorite in that race, which drew 10 runners including several from overseas, but was pulled up with a bowed tendon.
An everyday horse might have been given time and prepped for a comeback. A four-time champion, even one at (for steeplechasing) the relatively young age of 8, earns a retirement. Flatterer recovered at Sheppard's farm, went for some hacks in the fields, dabbled in dressage and otherwise kept busy. Then he retired for real, to that field at Pape's farm. My Way is a short drive from the center of Unionville, a village with a tack shop, a post office, a real-estate office, an art gallery, an elementary school, a firehouse, a sandwich shop or two. It's horse country, and has seen plenty of good ones. But only one Flatterer. He received visitors now and then, entertained Pape and kept watch over the place - now home to other retirees including champion Mixed Up, multiple stakes winner Asking For Luck, and stakes winner Dirge among others.
For years, Flatterer and retired broodmare My Tombola were inseparable fieldmates. She was a stakes-placed winner of $100,000 on the flat and produced 2013 steeplechase champion Divine Fortune among others. She was also 10 years younger than Flatterer and helped keep him young, healthy, moving. She was also wildly protective of him, known for chasing off veterinarians, blacksmiths or anyone else who got too close to her man.
Like Flatterer, she was showing her age this spring. At 25, Pape and Sheppard couldn't envision her living without Flatterer, nor could they see her fitting in with the others on the farm. She was put down too, next to Flatterer in their field. The spot is on a small rise, with a view of the other fields.
"I figured she'd really come apart on me without him," said Pape. "Racing is fun, but you have to appreciate the other part of the deal - the animal - and take care of them. None of this is easy."
Dark bay/brown gelding, 1979, Mo Bay-Horizontal, Nade. Bred by Bill Pape and Jonathan Sheppard in Pennsylvania. Owned by Bill Pape, George Harris and Jonathan Sheppard. Trained by Jonathan Sheppard. Ridden in jump races by Jerry Fishback (9 wins), John Cushman (4), John Francome (2), Tim Tomson-Jones (1), Richard Dunwoody, Ben Guessford, Bill Martin.
Career Statistics: 52-24-8-5. $534,854. Steeplechase Statistics: 24-16-5-1.
Thoroughbred Hall of Fame induction: 1994. Key Wins: Colonial Cup 1983-86; Temple Gwathmey 1983 and 1985; Grand National 1983; New York Turf Writers Cup 1984; Iroquois 1987.
Other Notable Races: Second in 1986 French Champion Hurdle; Second in 1987 English Champion Hurdle.