Morning hasn’t really come yet. Brisk. Puddles glisten at the Oklahoma Annex. Tom Voss complains about the traffic because of a 5K in town, it took half an hour to get to the barn. Danielle Hodsdon walks Forever Together around the trees in front of Jonathan Sheppard’s barn. A girl and her pony. Sheppard stands under the awning of his shedrow and follows his champion; hat pulled down nearly over his eyes, a jacket bracing the cold and his mind wrestling instinct and fact.
Hodsdon puts Forever Together in her stall and Sheppard takes the shank.
“You look nervous already,” a visitor says to the Hall of Fame trainer.
“I am nervous,” Sheppard says “I don’t think we’re going to run. We got a lot of rain and there’s a race for her at Arlington Park.”
The trainer’s juxtaposition – instinct and fact.
A trainer’s life is about decisions and this one has Sheppard atwitter.
Sheppard houses one champion in his barn. She never lets him down, so he doesn’t want to let her down. She won three Grade I stakes last year, good enough to become the trainer’s first flat champion. He’s in the Hall of Fame because of his prowess in steeplechasing; he’s working on reworking his plaque. Sheppard has developed a heady crop of flat horses recently. Informed Decision, Winter View and Just As Well won stakes this year, Forever Together leads the squad.
She won the Diana on good turf last year. She won the Jenny Wiley on good turf at Keeneland this spring. Sheppard ran her at Woodbine last year on yielding turf. The bog came over Sheppard’s shoes. She suffered her worst defeat (when racing on the turf) that day; she finished third, beaten 3 lengths.
Sheppard doesn’t want to do it again. Doesn’t want to do that to her again. But, here it is in the morning, the Grade I Diana looms in 12 hours. The rain has stopped. Is that sun?
Hours later, Sheppard walks the turf course with jockey Julien Leparoux and decides the grass feels more firm than he expected. He’s running.
By 11, after appearing on the OTB show on the main track side, Sheppard seems less nervous. Not at ease, he’s never at ease, but less nervous. He’s made a decision, the hard part over. At least until the second guessing starts if she doesn’t run well.
Now, he sits and waits.
Instinct and fact.
“She’s run on good to yielding before and it might be listed as good I suspect. I think it drains pretty good and I don’t think it will be a factor,” Sheppard says. “If we waited for the Beverly D. and it rains out there, we’ve got nothing to fall back on.”
Sheppard mulls a rival trainer’s four-point argument for the Beverly D. – bad post at Saratoga, bigger purse at Arlington, soft ground at Saratoga, weight-for-age in Chicago, a handicap here.
Of course Sheppard knows all those. They’re part of the decision process.
“You never know in horse racing,” he says. “Some people seem to have a natural way of deciding the right way to go. You always have decisions, whether to work today or wait until next week, how slow or how fast.”
Sheppard breezed Forever Together in a quick 57 3/5 seconds Wednesday. Did she go too far? Did she do too much, too fast?
“I remember With Anticipation going over to the main track to breeze. It was three days before the (2002 Sword Dancer), I was waiting at the three-eighths pole gap and I look up and there’s Bobby Frankel,” Sheppard says. “He had Denon out there, he was running in the same race. He said, ‘is that your big horse?’ I said ‘yes, who do you have out here?’ He said, ‘well, Denon.’ “
The questions continued – astute horsemen quizzing each other.
Sheppard: “How far are you going?”
Frankel: “A half, how far are you going?”
Sheppard: “Five-eighths. I guess we’ll find out on Saturday who’s right.”
Frankel just smiled.
Sheppard follows that story with a rhetorical question. “What is right and wrong?”
With Anticipation beat Denon a nose.
“Do you think if he worked five-eighths and we worked a half it would have made a difference?” Sheppard asks. “Nobody knows. It’s a very inexact science.”
With that, he walks to his Audi station wagon and heads back to the Annex, to make a few more decisions.
The Diana is still six hours away.