Throwback Thursday: The mighty Leaping Frog

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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.

Steeplechase horse Leaping Frog won six of nine starts over fences in 1979, placed in the three races he lost, gave away heaps of weight, and led the circuit in earnings. But wasn’t a champion.

And that’s a shame.

Trained by Jonathan Sheppard for the Chadds Ford Stable of Phyillis Wyeth (yes, the Phyllis Wyeth who owned Union Rags) and Doris Segal, Leaping Frog turned in one of the best campaigns in American steeplechase history.

Bruce Christison, fortunate enough to ride Leaping Frog 14 times (with a dozen top-three finishes) called the horse a dream.

“He was literally one of the easiest horses to ride, and the most phenomenal jumper I ever sat on,” said the former jump jockey, who now operates a show stable with his wife Amy in Camden, S.C. “You could let him drop out the back door and he’d just tootle around. He’d jump conservatively. The first time I rode him I thought, ‘There’s just not much horse here’ but once you asked him to run he barely got his feet inside the wings (at a jump) and just left the ground. He was one of the boldest jumpers I knew. He had way more scope than you thought for a horse his size.”

Leaping Frog was small, but mighty. Christison’s first ride aboard the Virginia-bred came in 1977 at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup meet (which used to have hurdle races). They clobbered the more-highly-regarded Sheppard trainee French Hollow. The race was worth just $4,000, but the win was heady stuff for an apprentice jockey. Leaping Frog won by 3 lengths. European import French Hollow, with champion jockey Jerry Fishback aboard, settled for second. Christison and the 4-year-old Leaping Frog capped the year with a third – behind Fishback and Café Prince – in the Colonial Cup.

In 1978, Leaping Frog emerged as a true stakes horse (winning three times including Saratoga’s Lovely Night) but his 6-year-old campaign was truly special.

It began in the year’s first race, on the flat at Aiken, and a neck win. A week later, the Virginia-bred crushed three rivals in the Carolina Cup – carrying 160 pounds and winning by 3 lengths after trailing early. He gave between 11 and 25 pounds to his rivals. Two weeks after that, at the Stoneybrook meet in Southern Pines, Leaping Frog ruled again – this time under 164, at least 20 more than his three rivals. At Kentucky’s High Hope meet April 29, Leaping Frog won his fourth consecutive race – by 5 lengths.

Sheppard sent his charge to the rich ($50,000) Bolla International at Hard Scuffle May 26. Leaping Frog raced up front early, then couldn’t accelerate late and settled for third behind Owhata Chief and Deux Coup. Getting right back to work, Leaping Frog went to Monmouth Park for the Midsummer Handicap June 20 and won by 10 lengths over Deux Coup and three others.

LeapingFrog1At Saratoga Aug. 3, with Christison aboard again, Leaping Frog finished second in the Lovely Night Handicap – 2 3/4 lengths behind Café Prince but 3 3/4 lengths in front of Martie’s Anger while conceding six pounds. Twenty days later, Leaping Frog got his revenge – drawing off to an 8 3/4-length triumph in the New York Turf Writers (photo at left courtesy of National Steeplechase Association/Coglianese) after rating well off the early pace through eight fences. Café Prince finished last of six and Martie’s Anger stayed in the barn. Christison was blown away.

“He did it so easily,” he said. “He was so far out the back door you just didn’t think he was going to get there, but he did. He’d hang out the back door like that until you asked him to run. Once you asked him, people needed to get out of the way.”

Rested until November, Leaping Frog tuned up for the season-ending Colonial Cup with a run in a $5,000 hurdle for amateur jockeys at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Carrying 175 pounds including Toinette Jackson, Leaping Frog blasted eight rivals – winning an 18-length laugher.

Next came the Colonial Cup. Leaping Frog (carrying 162 as an older horse) rated well back in a nine-horse field, and was still fourth at the last fence before rallying to get within a half-length of Martie’s Anger (under 151 as a 4-year-old) at the finish.

Going on 30 years later, Christison sounded like he’d like another crack at it.

“If I’d have been a smarter rider, that would have been different,” he said. “Coming around the top turn I was going so good and I thought I had dead aim on him and was going to get him whenever I wanted. If I’d have been smarter, and knew Martie’s Anger better I’d have stayed wide and come on him from out there. When I came up on his hindquarters, I could see him dig in and try a little harder.

“Froggie tried so hard that day. I was proud of him.”

The championship vote went to Martie’s Anger, another Sheppard trainee, who won four of eight but spent much of the season in the allowance ranks. To be fair, he won the finale and that carried the most impact. But Leaping Frog would have been a deserving champion too.

Bred by William Hackman, Leaping Frog made four starts as a 2-year-old in 1975. He won twice on the flat the next year, but made the conversion to jump racing after selling to Chadds Ford and Sheppard, and won three times in the final two months of the season. His 1977 campaign included four more wins. By 1978, he was a stakes horse – winning three times including the Lovely Night at Saratoga, and placing in five others.

“He was one of those horses who was a really tough hard knocker,” said Sheppard. “He had a little bit of tendency to be right there but often not quite get there and that was probably more due to his running style though. He used to lay back and come with a run. He never won an Eclipse Award, but he was good enough to.”

The 1979 campaign was his best, but he won Belmont Park’s Temple Gwathmey (over his old friend Martie’s Anger) in 1980. That turned out to be his final win though he raced into 1982 and retired to life as a foxhunter.

A son of Tulpehocken and the War Admiral mare Admiration, Leaping Frog made 75 starts according to Equibase. He won 20 (17 over jumps), finished second a dozen times and was third 21 times. At one point, he was fourth on the career earnings leaderboard for American steeplechasers with $233,118 behind only Hall of Famers Zaccio, Neji and Elkridge. Now, only Zaccio and Neji make a two-page list.

“He was so dependable and tried his heart out every time he ran,” said Christison. “You never didn’t expect a good effort.”

Hackman’s son Jim, owner and breeder of multiple stakes-winning Virginia-bred Two Notch Road, said his father was thrilled with Leaping Frog’s steeplechase success and would have gone along for the ride as a fan. William Hackman bred and raced Leaping Frog’s sire Tulpehocken, named for a creek in Berks County, Pa. Admiration was foaled in 1950, so was 23 when Leaping Frog was born on the Hackmans’ Orange Hill Farm in Middleburg. Jim Hackman recalled that Leaping Frog had some digestive-system issues as a young horse, and was given to veterinarian Dr. John Mayo whose practice was at Middleburg Training Center. After Leaping Frog’s health returned, he raced on the flat and was later sold to Wyeth as a steeplechase prospect.

“My father’s first good horse was Guardian Angel, who I think was Ribot’s first stakes winner in the U.S.,” said Jim Hackman. “He won the Midsummer Hurdle at Monmouth (in 1962) so my father enjoyed Leaping Frog’s success.”

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Leaping Frog and Bruce Christison headed to the post for the 1979 Colonial Cup. (National Steeplechase Association photo).