Far Hills: Sheppard takes aim with big group

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"sheppard11"The Far Hills race meet go back 91 years, tying its roots to the Essex Foxhounds, the area’s former strictly rural character and American steeplechase history.

No current participant goes back as far as Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, who still occasionally calls the place Essex and will bring 11 horses to the 2011 running of the National Steeplechase Association’s richest race meet Oct. 22. The New Jersey meet means rich purses, a big crowd, changing leaves, dressing in layers.

For horsemen like Sheppard, the day also means opportunity.

He’ll start five horses in the $250,000 Grand National – a race he last won in 1999 but also one he’s brought home six other times at Far Hills and other venues over the years. Sheppard’s previous Grand National winners include Double Reefed, Gateshead, Ninepins (twice), Runway Romance and Hall of Famers Cafe Prince and Flatterer. The race dates to 1899 and has been contested at Fair Hill, Foxfield, Saratoga, Belmont Park and Morris Park with a roster of past winners including Good And Plenty, Jolly Roger, Battleship, Elkridge, Oedipus, Shipboard, Neji, Bon Nouvel, Shadow Brook, Top Bid and Zaccio.

Like its early days, the modern-day Grand National packs a punch with big money up for grabs (the 1927 running  paid out $34,750 to the winner) and championship implications.

Sheppard appreciates the chance to run.

“Obviously the big race is highly important, it’s the most valuable race of the year,” he said of the Grand National. “It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to run for that kind of money. All credit to Far Hills for keeping the purse money where it is, and doing it from within the sport rather than with outside help from the Breeders’ Cup or somewhere else.”

The Grand National drew a huge field of 14, headed by Iroquois winner Tax Ruling and a host of other players including 2010 race winner Percussionist, 2009 race winner Your Sum Man, Grade I winners Mabou, Pierrot Lunaire and Arcadius, Grade II winner Divine Fortune, et al. The Eclipse Award is in the balance and a win by Tax Ruling, Mabou or Divine Fortune could theoretically clinch a championship – though next month’s Noel Laing and Colonial Cup will also factor in the process.

The only major open stakes horse not in the lineup is 2011 earnings leader Decoy Daddy, whose owner Irv Naylor starts four in the 2 5/8-mile classic.

Those 21 furlongs pose a difficult question for horses. Far Hills, due usually to its timing in late October, regularly comes up with softer turf. The course also features plenty of elevation change – climbing from its low point on the far turn to the finish line at the end of races.

“It takes a tough horse,” Sheppard said. “You have to have a horse with enough speed to have some sort of a position early, but also have enough stamina to stay on for the finish. It definitely suits some horses and doesn’t suit others. You don’t see many horses come from far behind there.”

You also don’t see many lead every step, meaning the place rewards the sometimes mutually exclusive blend of staying power and handy positioning. Champion McDynamo, probably the ideal mix of those traits, won seven times in a row over the course. Foreign-bred horses often do well there – as evidenced by winners such as Percussionist, Your Sum Man, Quel Senor, Ninepins and Correggio.

Sheppard brings five American-breds, but easily creates a confidence level in each as rain further softened Mid-Atlantic turf Wednesday afternoon.

A.P. Smithwick winner Divine Fortune is his best horse. “He’s doing great. He’s fresh. I didn’t give him a flat race since Saratoga because he had two fairly hard races there. I’m not sure he’s well suited by softer ground. He’s an extravagant, flashy mover. I don’t think that’s to his advantage. But he’s the livest of our group. On his day, he’s a very good horse. I’d be more confident on firmer ground and it looks like it’s going to dry out once this front moves through.”

Grade I winner Arcadius makes his first jump start in more than a year. “He had a nice training flat race at Foxfield. He seems good. On his day he can run with the best of them, too. I don’t think the softer ground will bother him. If he had one jumping race I might be more confident, but he’s more suited to Far Hills than Divine Fortune.”

Third last year, Lead Us Not returns while looking to improve off a fifth in the Dot Smithwick Stakes at Virginia Fall. “He’s a tough old horse, not very fast, a bit like a timber horse. But he can keep galloping, which you need there. He didn’t run that badly at Middleburg, which will  help. We had to give him some time (after an ankle injury this spring). He’s good, sound, healthy.”

Saratoga winner Italian Wedding, also owned by Sheppard, takes a shot in a rich Grade I after moving beyond the novice conditions. “I’m not sure he’s quite as good as some. This is the only place he can run and it’s fun to have a horse to run in the big race. He stays well which will help and he could run into a piece of it.”

Course winner Nationbuilder finished third in the Virginia Fall stakes after tackling both open stakes at Saratoga. “I could envision him sitting far out of it, and if it falls apart in front of him he could be running past horses around the last turn and uphill to the finish. He stays really well, obviously likes the course. He’ll have to have things fall into place for him, but it could turn out that way.”

Those last seven words summarize the thoughts of nearly every horsemen headed to Far Hills this weekend. Outcomes are in doubt, as in all races – the difference is these matter a little more.

See National Steeplechase Association website for Far Hills Entries.