Wednesday morning, Jonathan Sheppard contemplated his runners for the $150,000 New York Turf Writers Cup and – while not overlooking Italian Wedding – put the hard-trying chestnut behind bigger names Divine Fortune and Martini Brother in the synopsis.
Then the race happened.
Italian Wedding tasted victory for the first time in two years, emerging as the best of Sheppard’s barn and the rest in the Grade 1 steeplechase. Italian Wedding rated fifth early, rallied into contention on the turn and won a showdown with All Together over the final furlong to win by a length. Martini Brother, also part of Sheppard’s favored three-horse entry at 4-5, rallied for third as the winner covered 2 3/8 miles in 4:30.61.
While not shocked, Sheppard admitted to some surprise while walking out of the trustees’ room with his 14th Turf Writers score.
“I could see him running a nice, honest, little race and getting a piece of it,” the trainer said. “Frankly, I didn’t expect to see him win, but that’s why we come over here in the afternoon.”
As expected, longshot Brave Prospect opened a quick lead and Divine Fortune found a spot on the inside in second. Hunt Ball established his position in third. Unsettled from the beginning, Mr. Hot Stuff tried to find cover from the outside. Italian Wedding adopted a comfortable slot in fifth, on the outside of 2012 Turf Writers winner Demonstrative. Meet winner All Together, veteran Spy In The Sky and recent allowance winner Martini Brother settled near the back.
Turning into the stretch for the first time, Mr. Hot Stuff pulled Paddy Young into second, just off the heels of his stablemate. Unplanned, the move siphoned some of Mr. Hot Stuff’s stamina as Young tried to coax the third choice into settling. It was too much, too soon.
With a circuit to go, Mr. Hot Stuff and Hunt Ball applied pressure to Brave Prospect who began to wilt. Divine Fortune tracked them. All the while, Italian Wedding cruised in fifth, unhurried and unpressured from the beginning. Down the backside, Hunt Ball and Divine Fortune came under pressure and Demonstrative lost his position. Leaving the backside, Dalton slid Italian Wedding between Hunt Ball and Mr. Hot Stuff as All Together and Martini Brother loomed from the back. Turning for home, Italian Wedding opened a length on Mr. Hot Stuff and All Together tried to maneuver through on the cones. Italian Wedding popped the last as All Together flew it from the inside, offering the final threat. Ears pinned, Italian Wedding brushed it off with composure.
“Going to the start, he just felt so sharp today, I had a lot of confidence in him, traveled, jumped great when I needed him, chipped in when I didn’t,” Dalton said. “I went past Paddy at the top of the lane because the longer that horse travels without someone looking him in the eye, the better he’s going to go. I had him cooked, pinged the last, could hear the boys coming to me, so could he and he just picked up, in the end, in the last 10, 12 strides, he won a shade easy, like, ‘OK. OK. No problem.’ “
Sheppard dusted off Italian Wedding three weeks ago when he finished second in the A.P. Smithwick. The 8-year-old gelding hadn’t run since finishing fourth in the Carolina Cup in March 2012. Dalton jumped two hurdles on Italian Wedding the day before the Smithwick and liked what he felt.
“He was like a little bunny rabbit, he was brilliant. I had seen him run the last couple of years, I knew most of what there was to know about him,” Dalton said. “He traveled, he jumped, he never took a breath, it was just a little short for him. I’m sure there was a bit of cobwebs after a year and a half off, but I didn’t feel like he got tired.”
Three weeks later, Dalton placed him in the middle of the nine-horse field and simply followed the flow of the race.
“I like to put an old horse like him where he’s competitive in the bunch, close enough that he doesn’t have to make up too much ground but far enough way that he can save a bit. If he’s good enough, he’ll get there, if he’s not, he won’t.”
He was, winning for the fourth time, nearly doubling his career earnings and rewarding Sheppard’s patience.
Italian Wedding won a novice stakes here in 2011, and made two Grade 1 starts that fall. Never at that level of the game, the son of Alphabet Soup came back to try open company again last spring and finished fourth behind 2011 champion Black Jack Blues. Sheppard blamed “lots of little things,” but Italian Wedding didn’t run again in 2012.
“Nothing major, he just kept getting pushed back,” Sheppard said of the time off. He nearly came back last fall, but – looking at the condition book and his horse – Sheppard changed the play.
“I got frustrated with all these sort of niggling problems he kept having and there’s not much in the fall for a horse like him anyway. I just said ‘Why don’t we just forget about him? Give him the fall off and we’ll have a nice fresh horse for the spring.’ Then, of course, everything was going fine and he popped a splint so he missed the spring too.”
Prepped with distance work on the hills and fields at the farm, Italian Wedding went to Fair Hill Training Center for some works last month – cranking through 6-furlong moves on the Tapeta in 1:14 and 1:15 and change. Those aren’t much on paper, but fast enough for a steeplechaser. Italian Wedding returned to the races three weeks ago, then graduated to Grade 1 winner in the Turf Writers. Sheppard paid partial credit to the extended rest.
“Maybe in a roundabout way that helped him mature and grow into himself and get better,” he said. “It’s hard to say but I don’t think it hurts a horse to have a little time. He’s been working better, and kind of outworked Divine Fortune the other day.”
Sheppard’s first Turf Writers came in 1979 and the winner’s list includes stars Flatterer and Mixed Up, plus a few lesser lights such as Bisbalense and Sermon Of Love. Italian Wedding has deep roots with the trainer, who bought his granddam, Gemini’s Gem, because she was a half-sister to top steeplechaser Victorian Hill. She won on the flat and over jumps, and produced Effervescent in 1996. The daughter of Citidancer won on the flat and over jumps, and has produced three stakes horses – steeplechasers Cubist and Italian Wedding, improving turf mare Warm Glow (a Keeneland allowance winner last fall and third in Delaware Park’s Rosenna Stakes last week) on the flat.
“It’s a good family,” Sheppard said. “Effervescent has been a great broodmare, even if it took a little while with this horse. It’s rewarding because he was sort of like not much more than a little kid’s pony when we were breaking him as a yearling and a 2-year-old and stuff on the farm. Now he’s rather surprised everybody.”