John Shirreffs was in need of a fresh start. A new beginning. A change of pace. Call it what you will. He just needed to do some of the same old someplace new.
Shirreffs found what he was looking for, as many people often do, close to his roots.
Mention the name Shirreffs and most think California. He’s laid back like most people think California folks are. Of course he trained the legendary Zenyatta there. Giacomo, too. Scores of other top-class stakes winners went in and out of his Southern California barns through the years, fueled by prominent primarily West-Coast-based owners Jerry and Ann Moss, Marty and Pam Wygod, Ed Nahem’s 505 Farms and George Krikorian.
But don’t be fooled by the friendly attitude, easy going nature and overall laid back ways. Shirreffs is a New Yorker. Born in Kansas, he grew up in Port Washington between Manhasset and Great Neck on the north shore of Long Island and also spent time in New Hampshire as a youngster.
He wasn’t drawn to horses growing up in New York-that would come later after he was discharged from the Marine Corps-but he got some exposure to them.
“I only got interested in racing much later,” Shirreffs said Friday morning outside his barn on the Oklahoma as he watched multiple Grade 2 winner Mr. Commons cool out. “But I was fortunate enough to get exposed to horses when I was much younger. There’s a stable called Lakeville Stables in Great Neck, right off the expressway. So I was over there, pushing the wheelbarrow to the muck pile, that kind of stuff. Fortunately it paid off later in life that I had that experience.”
The experience, plus jobs working on farms and racetracks in California that stood in the way of his initial plan to try to go to Hawaii to surf, eventually led to a training career that started in 1978. He trained in California until earlier this spring, when he sent a string to Belmont Park. Shirreffs said he left California out of frustration more than anything, disappointing the lack of leadership and the state racing industry’s unwillingness to change.
So now here he is, sort of starting out at 68. He’s got the same smile and patient attitude he showed countless times during Zenyatta’s brilliant run that ended with her only loss from 20 starts in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. And he’s enthusiastic, for the fresh start and most likely because he’s still got plenty of good stock in his barn here and downstate at Belmont Park.
“I’m just really excited to be here, really excited,” Shirreffs said. “For me it’s a great change. Somewhat refreshing in a lot of ways. I find that the people I’ve met so far, on the track and off the track, are really interested in the horses. So that’s exciting.”
Shirreffs is excited to run Eblouissante, a highly regarded and undefeated half sister to Zenyatta, in today’s $200,000 Shuvee Handicap. The Shuvee, which drew a field of seven that will most likely be reduced with Summer Applause headed to the Delaware Handicap, will be Eblouissante’s stakes debut and her first start in more than seven months.
When she trained on the Oklahoma Friday morning, the 4-year-old Bernardini filly didn’t look like a horse who hasn’t been out since winning an optional claiming race Jan. 17 at Santa Anita. Like her older sister, Eblouissante took everything in on the short walk to the track and then while standing with the pony in the shaded area on the backstretch.
“She reminds me of Zenyatta in so many ways,” Shirreffs said. “Both very alert horses. Eblouissante could see a rabbit running across the field 100 yards away. She sees everything and that’s the way Zenyatta was. Always looking for something to get on their toes about. Any little excuse, but in a good way.”
Eblouissante was right into her gallop when she broke off and let her long stride carry her around the Oklahoma without much effort despite the heat and humidity.
“One thing about her, she hates to pull up,” Shirreffs said.
Back at the barn she was as cool as Zenyatta, too. The attitudes and personalities are similar, but they’re quite a bit different physically.
“She’s a little different than Zenyatta, who was a Street Cry. Street Cry’s are bigger, heavier boned, a little more robust. She’s a Bernardini, possibly a little more refined. So it took her awhile to really develop and mature.
“But now when I look at her now, I think, oh my goodness, she’s so much different than she was when she first came in. She’s got a beautiful length of stride. She’d be the perfect Arc horse because she can go 2 miles. It’ll be interesting to see how she runs with the added time and maturity.”
Eblouissante will need a good effort in the Shuvee, even with the defection of Summer Applause.
Authenticity is a deserving 7-5 morning-line choice off five good races this year, including a win in the Churchill’s La Troienne on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. She was second to Tiz Miz Sue in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps after that, then returned to Saratoga to train with Todd Pletcher’s large string.
“Position-wise, this is good, it could set her up nicely for the Personal Ensign, the spacing was good, and she’s doing well,” Pletcher said. “We backed off her a little after her last race, kept her galloping. She’s a very professional older mare who does whatever you ask her to do.”
Sea Island, a good second to Summer Applause in the DuPont Distaff and then last in a restricted stakes June 7, won here last year and could bounce back for Shug McGaughey. Iowa Distaff winner Flashy American also won here last summer-at the maiden $25,000 level-and picks up Joel Rosario. Moon Philly and Royal Lahaina complete the field.