Fifty years ago, Jonathan Sheppard bought four yearlings at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sales at Saratoga. And changed racing. Then in his early days as a trainer, he had never really purchased a yearling – let alone traded bids among racing’s big names.
That’s eight firsts in a row for steeplechase horse Snap Decision. He goes for nine in Saturday’s Grade 1 Calvin Houghland Iroquois in Nashville. A ninth win would tie Thrice Worthy’s modern-day record for consecutive wins by an American steeplechase horse dating to 1981-82. Though it doesn’t quite measure up to Cigar’s 16 in a row, or the undefeated 13-start career of Snap Decision’s grandmother Personal Ensign, the feat matters given all the variables.
My friend Chris Burkhard – who owns the Placers, a workforce/staffing/consutling company in Delaware – talks to me about business, frequently. He’s got ideas, opinions, thoughts (really good thoughts) and perspective. I listen, sometimes follow his suggestions and always soak in everything even if some little voice tries to tell me that none of it applies to me. Of course, I’m wrong there. Advice from someone like Chris always applies, even to someone like me.
Anyway, he talked me into being a guest on his business podcast, which typically features a serial entrepreneur, somebody who scaled their company, hired a bunch of employees, became a mentor, and all those other things I haven’t done. I have to great insight or wisdom, but my did manage to start a company with my brother that has gone from a part-time lark in a basement – with a third-hand Gordon’s (I think it was Gordon’s) gin bottle lamp jammed into the ceiling for light – to a full-time small business now in its 28th year.
He asked me how we got here, what it took, if I had any advice for people. It felt like all the other conversations we’ve had – two guys who lived (he moved away) in the same neighborhood and who sent their kids to the same school talking shop. I’m not sure if I said this on the podcast, but if there’s one certainty in business, it’s that nothing ever stays the same. Adapt, work hard, find something you like, do the best you can under whatever circumstances you’re dealing with, create something people enjoy and you’ll be served well – no matter the field.
You can also sign up for his email newsletter because he really does know what he’s talking about.
A year ago we were making big plans for the 20th season of The Saratoga Special. Oh, it was going to be great – marketing, events, contests, special content items, a book and a great time had by all.
And then we were just trying to survive, mostly figuratively but somewhat literally, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the country, the world and even our little corner of it. A few people close to us got sick (all recovered), some others a little further removed weren’t so lucky and we hope we’re all on the other side of the risk now. Vaccines and free 5G for everybody.
Like businesses everywhere, we certainly felt the impact. Reminder, don’t try selling advertising during a pandemic, but we reacted, adapted, made on-the-fly decisions and simply got from one day to the next thanks to a loyal base of clients and some wildly loyal readers. From this corner, thank you.
The 20th Special happened in 2020, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it a celebration as we went without printing and with 17 total editions as racing at Saratoga Race Course went on without spectators. Sean and I stayed home, Tom Law held down the fort (and everything else) in Saratoga along with a tiny cast including marketing whiz kid Sami Loud, writers Paul Halloran, Terry Hill and Mary Eddy and photographers Tod Marks and Susie Raisher. The season did not include 34 newspaper editions, star-studded yearling sales or throngs of racing fans outside the gates each morning. But we made it through.
And here we go for 2021. Call it a hybrid season. We’re aiming for print and digital distribution, counting on 20 editions and banking on support from advertisers and readers to make it all work. Sean and I will be there, that’s the plan anyway. Of course, Tom will be there. He lives there. Sami sounds like she got a real job after graduating from Quinnipiac. Paul, Terry, Tod, Mary and a few others will surely be part of the team. The rest? Well, as Mom used to say when we pestered her about going swimming at our aunt’s house, “We’ll see.”
Our publishing season starts on Opening Day, Thursday, July 15. We’ll follow that with Saturday, July 17 and then go Wednesday and Saturday for the full meet plus a much-anticipated Sales Week run of six consecutive editions Aug. 6-11. Get tied on. That streak starts with the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Friday, jumps right into massive cards of racing (headlined the Whitney on Saturday, the Saratoga Oaks on Sunday) over the weekend, Fasig-Tipton’s yearling sales Monday and Tuesday and a Wednesday cool-down day wrapping up everything and looking ahead just a little. Travers Day is Aug. 28 and the stakes lineup barely fits on the calendar page (as usual). Our final edition is slated for Saturday, Sept. 4 – Jockey Club Gold Cup Day in Saratoga (that doesn’t sound right, but we’re in if NYRA’s in).
Twenty editions, some fans in the stands, owners, trainers, jockeys, backstretch employees, horses, horses, horses and all the buzz that comes with them? Sounds like Saratoga to us. Bring it on.
All of it will depend on Covid news continuing to trend in the right direction and the support of advertisers and readers. We can’t quite see going back to the full schedule of 2019, not right away, but we’re excited about 2021 and can’t wait to get to work.
See you in Saratoga.
And here’s the sales pitch. If you’re an advertiser, would like to be one or know somebody who should be one, check out our 2021 Advertising Guide and Publishing Calendar. We witnessed MASSIVE increases in online readership last year and look forward to mixing that energy with our traditional print product this summer while helping everybody feel a little bit better about their favorite summer race meet (we know, we know, Del Mar’s pretty cool too and we grew up thinking Delaware Park was pretty close to heaven so…).
The Special delivers value to advertisers so if you’ve got something to sell, someone to thank or an idea to share, we’re the place. Thanks for being there.
You never know where a nugget of information might begin and this one comes from Joe Clancy Sr., father of two-thirds of the team behind thisishorseracing.com, whose grasp of racing history starts far earlier than the racing history of his offspring.
Two weeks ago, I questioned the heretofore accepted fact that Jonathan Sheppard and Sidney Watters Jr. were the only two people to train American champions on the flat and over jumps – adding Peter Howe (1972 jump champion Soothsayer and 1976 older filly/mare champion Proud Delta) and James E. Ryan (1949 sprint champion Royal Governor and 1953 jump champion The Mast) to the list.
Another trainer, Morris Dixon, belonged in the club as well – or so I thought. Every historic list I could find listed Dixon as the trainer of 1952 steeplechase champion Jam and 1947 sprint champion Polynesian. The latter also won the 1945 Preakness Stakes, giving Dixon the rare distinction of training a classic winner, a steeplechase champion and a flat champion. Of course, Papa Joe (as his grandkids call him) threw cold water on that claim with a phone call this week. It seems that Dixon’s son, Morris Jr., trained Jam – the fact confirmed by some further deep dives into various books around the office. Somewhere along the line, possibly in 1996, the Jr. got dropped from the champions listing for 1952.
So the trainer-of-champions-on-the-flat-and-over-jumps list lost a member. Of course, the list of people to train a flat champion, train a classic winner and sire the trainer of a jump champion gained one.
Both Dixons were successful trainers, though the father was something of a Mid-Atlantic legend thanks to Polynesian and dozens of other successful runners on the flat and over jumps. Based on his farm in Pennsylvania, Morris “Pop” Dixon won the NSA training title in 1950 and his early stable included horses owned by Charlotte Dorrance Wright and the Widener family. Over jumps, Dixon won the Temple Gwathmey with Adaptable and Iron Shot and trained major winner Balustrade. Later, his top horses included Castlebar II, Master Irish II (my favorite steeplechase horse as a kid), Tib’s Eve and others on the jump circuit. Dixon was equally adept on the flat, even beyond Polynesian. His 1970s stable star Grey Beret ran 103 times, winning 22 and earning $386,241 with two graded stakes wins. He ran in Delaware Park’s Donald P. Ross Handicap five years in a row (winning in 1976, finishing second in 1977 and 1980) and made four starts in the William du Pont Jr. at Delaware (winning in 1979). Sea Dahlia, a granddaughter of Polynesian, won a dozen races and placed in a graded stakes.
So, four – not five – people trained American champions on the flat and over jumps though we’re still trying to sort out one more potential member of the club. Rouge Dragon, the 1944 steeplechase champion, raced for W.G. Jones and (according to some published sources) Hirsch Jacobs. If it’s Jacobs, he was also the trainer behind flat champions Stymie, Personality, Affectionally and Hail To Reason.
Dad came up empty.
Open a history book and start checking things. It’s not always wise, but it is fascinating. For, oh and I don’t know how long, it’s been relatively accepted that Jonathan Sheppard and Sidney Watters Jr. were the only two people to train a steeplechase champion and a flat champion in North America.
Sheppard’s horses won 13 year-end championships over jumps, led by Flatterer’s four and Café Prince’s two. Flat stars Informed Decision (2009 female sprint division) and Forever Together (2008 female turf division) added to the trainer’s Hall of Fame resume. For Watters, the jump titles came with Shadow Brook in 1971 and Amber Diver in 1963. His flat champions were Hoist The Flag (2-year-old male of 1970) and Slew O’ Gold (3-year-old male 1983). Like Sheppard, who was inducted in 1990, Watters joined racing’s Hall of Fame – way too late in 2005.
The rare dual-purpose feat deserves recognition, but Watters and Sheppard aren’t alone in that club. The roll call won’t take long, but it’s more than an exacta.
Peter Howe trained Soothsayer, the 1972 jump champion, and Proud Delta, the 1976 older filly/mare champion for main client, Montpelier.
Morris Dixon’s versatile stable included 1952 steeplechase champion Jam, and the champion sprinter of 1947 Polynesian.
And before you think the sprint/steeplechase double is unique, James E. Ryan won the 1949 sprint title with Royal Governor and the 1953 steeplechase crown with The Mast.
That’s five, with the possibility of a sixth if I can find some confirmation. Some reference guides list Hirsch Jacobs as the trainer of 1944 steeplechase champion Rouge Dragon. Others have W.G. Jones. I’m inclined to lean toward Jones based on repitition, but if it’s Jacobs he was also the man behind flat champions Stymie, Personality, Affectionally and Hail To Reason.
And that’s it. I think.
Sheppard, of course, recently announced his retirement and was even more recently honored by the New York Racing Association with the renaming of the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup as the Jonathan Sheppard Stakes at Saratoga starting this summer. Honor him, applaud him, but don’t forget the other guys.