That’s 30. Trainer Jack Fisher won two races Saturday at Shawan Downs to reach 30 steeplechase wins on the season. He’s dominated all year, but maybe now is the time to start talking about records.
Fisher already holds the single-season record for earnings in a National Steeplechase Association season. In fact, he has the six highest annual figures when it comes to purses earned in jump races. The win record is another story, or stories, however.
Jonathan Sheppard won 39 in 1988, and that’s the record – as best anyone can tell. No, scratch that, it’s the record. We’re finished doing research. Unless you can find something different.
It was a monster year. Sheppard horses Jimmy Lorenzo and Summer Colony finished 1-2 on the earnings list with the former taking the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser. Other standouts included Gateshead, Polar Pleasure, Double Bill and Eskimo Point.
By Sheppard’s standards, the record-breaking year started slowly with just four jump wins by early May. He more than made up for it in October and November, winning 18 races over the final six weeks of the season. Those triumphs included six of the final seven hurdle stakes contested – the Queen Mother novice, Grand National, Breeders’ Cup, Crown Royal, Delta Air Lines novice and the Colonial Cup. That autumn streak would have been enough to win the title alone, as John Griggs’ 15 wins were good for second place.
Sheppard’s big year eclipsed his previous record high of 38 (1983) and helped make him a regular in the 30-win club with 10 seasons with 30 or more wins including three in a row twice.
Beyond Sheppard’s big numbers, checking steeplechase records can be a bit like tying water in a knot.
Before 1974, NSA statistics listed total wins on the circuit – flat and jump – for trainers. The numbers occasionally climb into the 40s and beyond, which prompted some research and math time last week. And you never know what you might find.
In 1958, according to all the history books, Mikey Smithwick won 43 races. It was a thoroughly dominant season for the future Hall of Famer, whose stable included the likes of all-time greats Neji and Ancestor that season. Of course, there’s always more to the story. Like Sheppard 30 years later, Smithwick started slowly. His first winner didn’t come until Radnor in May. Caste, a horse you’ve probably never heard of, won six races. Ancestor won three. Speedy mare Nizam’s Pet won three, a $7,500 claimer at Delaware Park in June, and the Rouge Dragon and New York Turf Writers Cup handicaps seven days apart at Belmont Park in October. She was never headed, beat males each time and must have been something to watch. The great Neji only won twice, but it wasn’t his fault as he lost carrying 175 pounds twice and 176 once. Under 173, he won Belmont’s 3 1/8-mile Grand National by 2 1/2 lengths.
Of course, when the musty smell of a 60-year-old book finally subsides and the races get counted, Smithwick “only” won 42 races that year. Four were on the flat, giving the trainer 38 jump wins – almost a record.
In 1937, James E. Ryan won 50 races. Fifty. And he thrashed the standings as second place was a three-way tie between J.G. Leiper Jr., J.T. Skinner and William B. Streett with eight wins each. Early in the season, Ryan won eight consecutive races – the last five at Camden and the first three at Southern Pines. His Itsaboy won 11, five over hurdles and six on the flat. Toolbox won 10, six over hurdles and four on the flat. Other stable stars included Escape II, a four-time winner over timber, and Royal Thomas, who won three over hurdles and one over brush.
The Ryan-trained Bulveta was involved in one of the year’s, or perhaps history’s, oddest racing moments when he won the Peapack on the flat at Far Hills. Bulveta won handily enough at 8-1 as just four horses finished. Five, including major contenders Toolbox and Mothel, were left at the post. No matter, the organizers at Far Hills thought quickly and staged another race “for horses that were left at the post in the Peapack.” Three took the offer, and Mothel won easily.
Ryan’s 50 wins included 14 on the flat, which works out to 36 jump wins. Good, great even, but not quite the record.
From 1936-40, Ryan won five consecutive training championships from his base near Unionville, Pa. (there’s a Ryan Road off Route 842). Later owned by George and Gretchen Wintersteen, the farm was the home base of future Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot for a time and more recently trainer Leslie Young rented a former Ryan barn. The facility includes a huge schooling field where Ryan’s stars The Mast, Glengesia and others honed their crafts. In addition to his standout 1937 season, Ryan won 49 races (37 over jumps) in 1936 and 36 (combined) in 1938. He was also a top jockey of the time.
When it comes to steeplechase trainers, 30 is a benchmark of sorts. As the sport has contracted its overall number of races, the figure has become more elusive. Fisher had only done it once before, in 1994, when his 30 wins were only good for second behind Sheppard’s 37. Sanna Neilson (then Hendriks) was the last to do it, with 32 in 2005. Bruce Miller went for 30 in 1996. Elliot did it in 1991. Smithwick went for 30 or more (flat and jump) nine times. Mickey Walsh, Sidney Watters Jr., Burley Cocks and Carroll Bassett also hit the mark.
Fast forward to 2019. Like Ryan in 1937, Fisher jumped out to a fast start and has led from the beginning. He will win his 13th championship as he has more the doubled his nearest rival (Sheppard has 13 wins) and is close to the earnings record of $1,321,150 he set in 2015.
The win record remains unfinished business, for now.