Sweet Shani stepped off the van in Pennsylvania and Jim Bergen shuddered.
“I thought they sent me the wrong horse,” he said. “They said we were getting a filly. She’s like a lot of those horses from New Zealand and Australia, but the fillies don’t normally look like that. They’re usually more fine. She’s got a big head, a Roman nose, she’s so solid and stout. She looked like she was on the East German girls’ field hockey team or something.”
The gray mare, then 6, joined Jonathan Sheppard’s stable in the summer of 2006 – a hot prospect from Down Under. Bred in New Zealand, she’d won a big Australian race (the Lachal Hurdle at Flemington) against males. Australian agent Manny Gelagotis, who sold stakes winner Meadow to Sheppard, worked the deal this time too. Purchased for Calvin Houghland, the “not inexpensive” Sweet Shani came as advertised – big, strong, potentially a star. Then she started kicking.
Before she really became part of Sheppard’s program, the daughter of Kashani fractured a hind leg by kicking the back wall of her stall.
“She wasn’t here two weeks and she got hurt,” said Bergen, Sheppard’s chief assistant on the farm. “When she first came here we had to be very careful with her. She was a bad kicker, she was difficult to ride, everything.”
Sweet Shani didn’t make her American debut for almost a year – turning up at Houghland’s home meet the Iroquois in 2007. She misbehaved on the way to the start, pulled hard in the race and finished fifth. Ten more defeats would follow that one, though she was rarely disgraced. Sheppard threw his powerful distaffer into the deep end, making eight starts vs. males and tackling five consecutive Grade I assignments. Along the way, she placed in the 2007 Grand National, 2008 Royal Chase and 2008 Iroquois. She pressed McDynamo, pushed Good Night Shirt, lost a heartbreaker to stablemate Sovereign Duty at Keeneland.
But never stopped trying.
“The best performance to me was the Royal Chase against Sovereign Duty,” Bergen said of the final edition of Keeneland’s Grade I stakes. “I had both horses at the time, but I was pulling for Shani, really pulling for Shani. That was one of the best jump races I’ve seen historically. She was running and had been valiant in defeat so many times, I really wanted to see her get one.”
She didn’t, coming up a neck short while giving her younger male neighbor a pound. Still, the effort was worthy and went into her quiver of quality tries.
“She got hurt the first year, but every year since then you could always count on her,” said Bergen. “I don’t think we ever had a year where we were disappointed with her performances and she’s been throwing out those performances since George Bush was in the White House.”
Three years after Barack Obama replaced Bush, two years after Houghland passed away and left the mare to his wife Mary Ann, Sweet Shani is a champion. At 11, she won the Margaret Henley Stakes in May and the Peapack Stakes in October to finish the season with $63,000 and edge Well Fashioned ($60,600) for the division title. In her only other start, Sweet Shani finished fifth in the Grade I New York Turf Writers Cup. Both wins were coronations, triumphs that produced “you’ve got to feel good for that mare” comments from witnesses at Nashville and Far Hills. Danielle Hodsdon was aboard for both victories and felt the same as everyone else.
“She’s a really, really classy old mare,” the jockey said. “You wait for the couple days a year where you get to get up on somebody like her. When she was younger she was kind of a pain. She kicked in the stall, used to stop a lot and pull herself up when she trained. Now she’s just a class act. She’s my favorite ride in the morning and it’s the same in the afternoon.”
Sweet Shani joined Confined (2009) as a filly/mare champion from Sheppard’s barn.
“She’s in the twilight of her career, so it was really nice,” said the trainer of his latest. “It means quite a bit to Mrs. Houghland. It’s fun to say we had a champion and she gets her name in the books. We’ve all grown to love and respect the mare, though it took awhile.”
Sweet Shani arrived with a bang, made her reputation for toughness in morning exercise, won hearts in defeat against classy competition and finally – finally – got her due.
“She ran in the big ones against the boys and you had to give credit to her,” said Sheppard. “She was tough. Brave. I felt sorry for her after the Keeneland race she lost. But you couldn’t fault her. It was never anything she did when she lost.”
Over time, Sweet Shani mellowed. She kicked less often, she became a sought-after morning ride as opposed to a dreaded assignment. Oh, she still rules the female side of Sheppard’s operation but she’s a sweeter Sweet Shani.
“I’m looking at her right now,” said Bergen in late November. “She’s turned out with a couple other fillies who are still in training, but she’s the common denominator, the boss out there, the alpha mare. But she’s nicer about it. Her idiosyncrasies have been outgrown a little. She has turned into a real pleasure to have around the barn.”
– – –
Champion Filly/Mare Sweet Shani
Gr. m. 11, Kashani-Sterling Princess, One Pound Sterling.
Bred by M J Armstrong in New Zealand.
Owner: Mary Ann Houghland. Trainer: Jonathan Sheppard. Jockeys: Danielle Hodsdon and Xavier Aizpuru.
Oldest hurdle winner of 2011 aiming for 12-year-old campaign next year, her final season according to NSA rules. Won two of three starts, the Margaret Henley at Nashville and the Peapack at Far Hills. American earnings of $206,996, career steeplechase earnings of $313,983.