All The Way Jose zeroes in on Far Hills

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Head flipping, noseband flying, hooves stepping in place, All The Way Jose looked ready to go – and then some – Tuesday morning at trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s Ashwell Stable near Unionville, Pa. Exercise rider and assistant trainer Keri Brion laughed at the antics.

“If this girl is getting on me, it means we’re going to work or we’re going to school,” Brion said, paraphrasing for her horse. She added, “I don’t really ride him every day anymore because he’s one of the easier rides.”

Brion rides him when he works and when he schools over hurdles though, and Tuesday was a work day – the work day. All The Way Jose runs in Saturday’s American Grand National hurdle stakes at Far Hills, N.J. The $400,000 Grade 1 is the richest hurdle race in North America and offers a chance for All The Way Jose – and a few others – to make a big claim for the 2017 Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser. Buttonwood Farm’s 7-year-old is one of nine entered in Saturday’s feature at Far Hills, which offers $800,000 in total purses on its seven races. 

All The Way Jose has no idea about all of that, but he knew something was up Tuesday. He was anxious in the stall as Brion rolled on polo bandages and cinched up the girth. He was impatient walking the shedrow as his five setmates got ready. And he was looking for the “Hundred Acre Field” for every step of the jog up Lamborntown Road from the barn.

And once in the field, All The Way Jose put in his work. He started off third in the set, behind Far Hills runner Wigwam Baby and the Maryland Million-bound Forgiving, and was joined by another Far Hills runner Snuggling on the second and final trip up the 3-furlong straight. They gained on the leaders and finished fast. Behind them, maidens Bite The Bit and Mythmaker worked to keep pace. All six worked well, with the leaders timed in 1:03 by Sheppard from across the field.

The workout was typical Sheppard. It was testing, somewhat approximate and achieved with plenty of feel as opposed to out-and-out planning. There was no walkie talkie, no pacemaker, no script other than the second, fourth and sixth horses were supposed to finish up alongside the first, third and fifth. Sheppard gave brief instructions and organized riders in the barn, then provided more details while driving alongside the horses in his Camry.

The field, one of several the Sheppard horses can access, is a unique place. To preserve the turf, the figure-eight galloping strip is used mainly for fast works like Tuesday’s. The day-to-day galloping happens in other fields or Ashwell’s wood-chip training track.

There are plastic stakes on the bottom turn, which Sheppard adjusts to keep the ground fresh (though he sometimes forgets to tell the riders). The horses start off uphill headed north, turn left along Route 842, navigate a short sandy strip, bend left again and downhill toward the barn, then negotiate a fairly sharp right turn and roll up the hill back toward the road. Sheppard starts his stopwatch on the second lap, far faster than the first, when the horses pass a white pole on the far side of the field. He stops the watch when the horses pass a red pole on the near side. It’s about 5 furlongs, or so Sheppard surmises.

“I have no idea how far it is, but the times are about what a five-eighths time would be,” he said while watching the work through binoculars and gripping a stopwatch. “We have been in :59 on firm, fast ground with (stakes-winning flat horse) Rose Tree or something else pretty quick and sometimes we’ll go in 1:04 or 1:05.”

The Hundred Acre Field is actually now two 50-acre fields thanks to a fenceline, but has been a staple of Sheppard’s training for years. When access to another galloping area called West Hill, along nearby West Road, was lost to a landowner change, the field took on more importance. Tuesday, it was easy to imagine the likes of Flatterer, Café Prince, Ninepins, Divine Fortune and some others charging across the Pennsylvania turf.

All The Way Jose has a long way to go to approach those elites, but he’s working on it. Bred by Sheppard in Pennsylvania, the bay gelding was destined for a hurdle career and started twice as a 3-year-old in 2013. The next year, he became a star – winning three times and placing second three times in six starts to claim the year’s novice hurdle title. As right as that season was, the next two couldn’t have been more wrong. The son of Senor Swinger and the Northern Baby mare Maternity Leave lost seven times without getting close in 2015 and 2016, and endured surgeries after each to address a breathing issue.

“We were all a bit puzzled because we’ve had pretty good luck with those operations but it clearly didn’t work for him the first time,” said Sheppard of a tieback procedure on the horse’s throat. “We had him examined by a vet at New Bolton (David Levine) who did not do the first surgery and he said the tieback was fine but there was some extra piece that needed trimming and he thought that it was bothering him. So he went in and lasered it off and knock on wood, it’s worked.”

Sheppard called the second surgery something of a gamble and, given All The Way Jose’s form, there was very little to lose.

“It’s a very fine line with those things,” the trainer said. “I don’t know how they do it at all. When you look at it, or when I look at it, I can’t tell anything. You can’t say the first guy did a bad job, it’s just that it’s a close call on how much you trim and how much you tie back.”

Clear-winded again this year, All The Way Jose made three handicap starts this spring – third at Tryon, second at the Iroquois and first at Fair Hill. Put back in stakes company, he lost Brion with a jumping error in the Grade 1 A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga, finished third in the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup with Darren Nagle a month later and won last month’s Grade 1 Lonesome Glory with Nagle to leap into the championship picture.

No horse has won two Grade 1 jump races this year and the Grand National is the fifth and last at the top level. All The Way Jose defeated Modem, Casino Markets and Mr. Hot Stuff in the Lonesome Glory and won over the course in 2014. Staying is the horse’s game now and expect Nagle to pick up the pace on the final run down the backside. That strategy will be on the minds of several others in the 2 5/8-mile race so the difference will come down to jumping and who sees out the trip late.

“I think he’ll give an honest effort, I certainly couldn’t predict he’s going to blow the field away,” Sheppard said. “Don’t forget he was getting 14 pounds from Modem last time and now he’s at level weights. Each race is a new challenge and there’s a couple of newcomers, fresh horses in there.

“It’s kind of nice to go in there with a homebred. If you can win a big race like that with a homebred, it means a bit more. A lot of people are going to England and Ireland and paying big sums for these horses and here we are.”

The field of nine includes foreigners Hammersly Lake from England, Katnap from Ireland and Casino Markets (making his third U.S. start of 2017) from England. In addition to All The Way Jose, the Americans are Saratoga novice winners Show Court and Moscato, the hard-hitting Modem, spring stakes winner Jamarjo and veteran Mr. Hot Stuff.

All The Way Jose, Modem and Moscato (this year’s top novice) could have legitimate championship claims with a victory.

NOTES: Hammersly Lake streaks into Far Hills with three wins, two seconds and a third in English hurdle races this year for owner Robert Aplin and trainer Charlie Longsdon. Bred in France, the 9-year-old won a handicap chase at Perth in September. Brian Hughes comes over for the ride on the 9-year-old, rated 142 over hurdles and 155 over chase fences on the English scale . . . Irish trainer Joseph O’Brien sends over French-bred Katnap, twice a winner over chase fences (but winless over hurdles). The 10-year-old finished second in Aintree’s Topham Chase over the English Grand National course. Davy Russell comes over for the ride . . . Modem has finished second in the last three Grade 1 stakes, while carrying top weight in each, and gets a chance at level weights Saturday . . . Moscato started the year as a maiden and leads all U.S. jumpers in wins (four) and earnings ($156,000) this year. Second in his only two defeats this year, the English-bred takes on open company for the first time Saturday . . . Far Hills will offer a livestream of the day on its website. See Equibase website for Far Hills entries . . . Longtime Sheppard employee Bob Bailey was on duty in the tack room, rolling bandages and telling stories like always.