Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard swept the first two placings in Keeneland’s only steeplechase, the $160,125 Royal Chase (Gr. I) Thursday afternoon as Sovereign Duty rallied in the final yards to edge Sweet Shani by a neck. The winner, ridden by Danielle Hodsdon, covered the 2 1/2 miles and 13 fences in 4:58.13. Best Attack finished third.
Sweet Shani (Xavier Aizpuru) set a tepid early pace and carried the field for nearly every step as Sovereign Duty, Best Attack and Orison settled some 10 lengths off the leader in the field of six. Best Attack took up the chase on the final turn and got within a length of the winner only to be turned aside. Third over the final two fences, Sovereign Duty charged up the rail to win in the final strides.
Even Sheppard wasn’t sure which horse would win.
“To be truthful, (Sovereign Duty) kind snuck up on me, I had my eyes on the gray mare,” said the trainer. “All of a sudden, boom, here he comes. It’s kind of hard to watch two horses.”
Even if they are leading a Grade I stakes at Keeneland. Sovereign Duty improved to 4-for-13 in a steeplechase career that began in 2006. The $96,075 winner’s share lifted his lifetime jump earnings to $206,330. Bred in Kentucky by Will Farish, Sovereign Duty completed a full circle as he sold at Keeneland as a yearling in 2003. Purchased for $425,000 by Overbrook Farm, the son of Kingmambo was trained by Wayne Lukas and Jeff Thornbury, earning less than $2,000 in four starts.
“It’s just another example, here’s a horse who’s bred in the purple and was basically a complete flop,” said Sheppard. “He was getting beaten for maiden $25,000 at River Downs. It wasn’t an immediate turnaround – it was a slow, uphill battle. He had some temperament issues and just didn’t seem to have it all together. He lacked confidence, that would be the easiest way to explain it. As time has gone by, he’s gotten more confidence in himself and he’s put it all together now.”
The win puts Sovereign Duty in the top spot on the National Steeplechase Association’s 2008 horse leaderboard with $114,075 and a 2-for-2 mark. Reigning steeplechase Eclipse Award winner Good Night Shirt opened his season with a Grade I win (worth $60,000) at Atlanta April 12. The latter points to the $150,000 Iroquois (Gr. I) at Nashville, Tenn. May 10. Sheppard will wait and see where his latest Grade I winner goes next.
“I’m not going to talk about him in terms of the great horses in the past, but he’s certainly a useful horse,” said the trainer. “He stays well, he tries hard, he’s game but I can’t take anything away from Sweet Shani either. She ran a tremendously game race and never quit running.”
NOTES: Sheppard and Hodsdon also teamed up to win the 2007 race, with Mixed Up, while the trainer won in 2002 with It’s A Giggle . . . Race favorite Preemptive Strike scratched with a tendon injury that will sideline him at least until autumn . . . Sixth-place finisher Feeling So Pretty was vanned off, but owner/trainer Lee McKinney said a veterinary exam showed a muscle cramp and that the veteran mare was OK.