Throwback Thursday: Flatterer takes on the world

- -

In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6.

March in the Mid-Atlantic can bring unpredictable weather. Just look outside. And the same was true in 1987 as American hopeful Flatterer prepped for a start in the Champion Hurdle at England’s Cheltenham Festival.

The four-time American champion spent much of the winter in Camden, S.C., and all was going well until trainer Jonathan Sheppard started thinking about the difference between South Carolina in February and England in March. Like comparing the Wanamaker Mile to the Dipsea Trail Run.

“Before he leaves, I need to take him up and give him a proper work at home,” Sheppard told himself. Flatterer was shipped to Pennsylvania for a final workout on what the locals call West Hill along West Road just outside of Unionville, Pa. and a short hack from Sheppard’s farm. Of course, the morning after Flatterer arrived from South Carolina the thermometer read 18 degrees. The turf on West Hill was frozen, and no horse – least of all one trying to run in the Champion Hurdle – was going to gallop up it. Sheppard did the only thing he could do.

“I had five or six stalls at Garden State Park then for some flat horses,” Sheppard said of the New Jersey racetrack in Cherry Hill, about 50 miles from his farm. “We shipped Flatterer to Garden State, and I worked him myself a nice, slow mile – picked it up the last bit – and went to the airport.”

Flatterer never did get that hill work, but the audible worked as – four days after that workout on the dirt in New Jersey – Flatterer finished second to English superstar See You Then on the turf in England in one of the signature performances in American steeplechase history. Flatterer lost the race, but gained far more in what would ultimately be his final season of racing at age 8.

“I don’t think Jonathan ever got enough respect for what he was trying to do,” said trainer Graham Motion, then Sheppard’s assistant who made the trip with Flatterer. “We were running him in his first start of the year where those guys had been running all winter. We were going in cold turkey off the Colonial Cup (in November).”

The Festival, which starts Tuesday and runs through Friday, makes any American steeplechase fan think of Flatterer, Motion and Sheppard among them.

“Coming back after the race, the reception we got coming into the unsaddling area was akin to him winning the race,” said Motion, who was on the shank. “There was so much respect for how well he ran, and what we were trying to do. And that didn’t seem like something they’d necessarily do for every horse who finished second or third normally.”

“My most viivd memory of that race is walking in afterward and when we walked in Graham is leading the horse, I’m beside him and this tremendous cheer went up,” Sheppard said. “I thought See You Then must have been behind us, but it was for us. They appreciated the enormity of what we’d done. It put a lump in your throat.”

FlattererOwned by Sheppard, Bill Pape and George Harris, Flatterer was America’s best. After a brief flat career (18 starts at 3 in 1982), the Pennsylvania-bred burst into jump racing. He started 1983 as a maiden and finished it as a champion with six wins from eight starts. He backed up that rocketship start with three more Colonial Cup wins and Eclipse Awards as champion steeplechaser in 1984, 1985 and 1986. Along the way, he set an American record by carrying 176 pounds to victory in 1986. His connections went after bigger achievements in the summer of 1986, and Flatterer did them proud with a second in the French Champion Hurdle at Auteuil going 3 3/16 miles in late June. Rested until fall, he capped the year with a 17-length destruction of the Colonial Cup.

England beckoned.

Most American attempts at overseas jump racing followed a similar model that involved sending a horse to an English or Irish trainer for an extended time. It worked with Jay Trump, who won the English Grand National at Aintree in 1965 and with Ben Nevis, who did the same in 1980. Fort Devon, Tingle Creek, Soothsayer and some others found success in England under similar models. Sheppard and Pape tried that with 1979 champion Martie’s Anger in 1981 and it didn’t work.

With Flatterer, they’d gone to France on a tight schedule and finished second. They would do the same for Cheltenham. After the Garden State workout, Motion and the horse vanned to New York and flew to England. They set up camp in Lambourn at the training yard of John Francome for three days. The champion jockey, who won the 1983 Colonial Cup on Flatterer, had since retired and stepped into training.

“He was like an icon,” Motion said. “That was a very exciting part of the trip. I was English, but I’d left at 16 and I don’t think I quite had a grasp on what Cheltenham was about. I was aware of it, everybody was, but it wasn’t something I identified with necessarily. Staying at John Francome’s yard was as big a deal as anything to me.”

With Sheppard aboard (just like at Garden State), Flatterer galloped on the downs at Lambourn Sunday (photo, by Chris Cancelli) and had a light canter and a blow out on “The Ridgeway” Monday. The race was Tuesday. The horse was bright and fresh, and optimism percolated. On race day, The Racing Post featured Flatterer prominently with the headline “American dream, Flatterer set to seize crown.” Someone somewhere placed a massive wager and bookmakers dropped Flatterer to 10-1 from 20-1.

With American champion Jerry Fishback aboard, Flatterer dropped to 8-1 in a field of 21. See You Then, who won his prep at Haydock 11 days earlier, was the even-money favorite. Motion remembers the crowd, the pressure, the stress of trying to find a spot to actually see the race.

After a slight delay at the start caused by See You Then, who stood sideways in front of the field, Flatterer broke alertly and was third over the first hurdle. He stayed there, jumping well in the first four or five until the pace quickened – as it always does – coming to the third last. See You Then swept up on the outside as the American dropped back and lost position for 10 strides or so. He was fourth over the second-last as See You Then cruised alongside Barnbrook Again. Those two jumped the last together, See You Then with his ears pricked, and Flatterer twisted slightly on landing. Flatterer closed the gap in the final run-in, passed Barnbrook Again but settled for second.

In the end, Flatterer couldn’t quite get there. On unfamiliar ground, over unfamiliar hurdles, off a four-month layoff, in an era where such international challenges were rare, he lost to one of the best Champion Hurdle winners in history. At the end of the season, Pacemaker International magazine added a Special Award to Flatterer for making the attempt. The announcement included the sentence, “It took a three-time champion hurdler to beat the four-time American champion in his brave challenge for our premier hurdling prize.”

Motion soon left Sheppard’s to work for Bernie Bond in Maryland and became a trainer himself in 1993 – and has won nearly 2,300 races including the Kentucky Derby, Dubai World Cup and three Breeders’ Cup races.

But he puts Flatterer in an exclusive category.

“Having seen that horse after Cheltenham and after the French Champion Hurdle, I never saw a horse as tired as he was afterward,” said Motion. “He was such a generous horse. He was a workhorse. He wasn’t a flashy horse or a sharp horse who made you look at him. It was the kind of experience you couldn’t duplicate. My respect for the job Jonathan did with the horse has grown as I’ve gotten older and done more.”

No American-trained horse has won at the Cheltenham Festival, though Lonesome Glory won a novice hurdle at the course’s December meeting in 1992. On one hand, Flatterer proved it was possible, on another he might have been the best American jumper ever and if he couldn’t do it how could anyone else?

And besides, there’d be nowhere to train. Garden State Park was bulldozed in 2003, its 600 acres turned into townhouses and a shopping mall. 

Watch Flatterer’s Champion Hurdle: