Steeplechase Rewind: Fisher leads the trainers

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Jonathan Sheppard: 25 championships. Mikey Smithwick: 10 championships.

They are the measuring sticks when it comes to American steeplechase trainers, though even they may eventually have to move over. Jack Fisher won 23 races in 2014, eight more than nearest rival Sheppard, to collect an eighth National Steeplechase Association championship and move to third on the all-time list. Fisher’s crowns, based on races won, have all come since breaking through with his first in 2003.

And, though he trails two Hall of Famers, Fisher tries not to think about the history.

“I don’t think about all that, but I didn’t know I was that close to Mikey,” Fisher said Thursday. “I’m going to continue doing it until I don’t like it anymore. I’ve got good owners and I like my horses. Not necessarily my horses, I just like horses. What else am I going to do?”

If it’s November, the Maryland resident might go foxhunting, repair a chain harrow, fix a Gator, schedule some scouting trips to the barns of Alan Goldberg and Mike Trombetta or dream about a couple of upcoming trips – one to an island and another to a ski slope. Come February, he and his horses will be back at work in plotting another championship.

The 2014 stable did it without a star as Fisher put just one horse in the top 10 in terms of earnings.

Syros was a fitting top earner for the stable – making nine starts over jumps, winning twice, finishing second three times and third twice while earning $90,600. For good measure, he also won on the flat at Belmont Park in June to finish with $122,400 for owner Gill Johnston. The son of Dynaformer twice ran in maiden claimers over hurdles, for tags of $20,000 at Atlanta and the Virginia Gold Cup, before collecting a rich Saratoga allowance and placing in two novice stakes by fall.

The aggressive move to the claiming ranks paid off.

“I look at horses like that and think, ‘They’re not doing any good. Put them in where they can just trounce on somebody and build up their confidence. Let it be fun.’ I think it helps them,” Fisher said after Syros won at Saratoga this summer. “If somebody takes them, they take them. I could be wrong and they’re no good, but sometimes you’ve got to try stuff like that.”

Three-year-old champion of 2013, Schoodic won at Strawberry Hill and Saratoga for longtime client Edie Dixon. Old pro All Together kept on cranking, getting a stakes win at Virginia Fall and three seconds in seven starts for Andre Brewster and Sheila Williams. Fisher won six timber races, got Virsito home first at Saratoga, won two with newcomer Selection Sunday and added the year’s final maiden race with Overwhelming (in his sixth try).

“I was surprised how many starts I had because I didn’t start out the year with any more horses,” he said. “The horses I had stayed sound. Maybe I’m learning something. I don’t train them as hard as I used to or work them as fast as I used to. I think it comes with time, where you don’t get nervous about whether they’re fit enough.”

Like any racing fan, Fisher appreciated the efforts of his horses – perhaps none more so than All Together. The 9-year-old son of Danzig passed $360,000 in steeplechase earnings with another solid campaign.

“He’s just a cool horse,” Fisher said. “He always tries and you’ve got to love that about him. Everybody needs to love a horse like that. He’s neat to be around.”

Fisher did not win an open hurdle stakes all year, and hopes that changes in 2015. Mr. Hot Stuff could return. Schoodic’s year ended with back-to-back poor efforts, but he will be back. Syros and Selection Sunday lead a good cast of novices and Overwhelming looked good when he closed the year with a maiden win at the Colonial Cup. And then there are those barn visits on the calendar.

“I used to work a lot harder at it, and follow up on horses all over the place,” Fisher said. “Now I go see Goldberg, he sent me a list, and a I go see Trombetta. They might have one I like, or they might have six I like.”

Look for at least some of them next year, when Fisher takes aim at title number nine.

Murphy14The Rest of the Story
Beyond Fisher, Sheppard won 15 races to take second place. Grade 1 stakes performer Divine Fortune won his first and last starts of the year, at age 11, while novice champion All The Way Jose collected three wins and three seconds from six starts. The biggest news when it came to Sheppard might be the starts total (81) as he was third behind Fisher (136) and Richard Valentine (91) in that category. A Hall of Famer, Sheppard isn’t going anywhere but it’s an interesting topic.

Nobody else had more than 60 starters on the year, though several trainers came up with big seasons.

Valentine’s Virginia barn won 14 races. The squad won three races at Saratoga, with Demonstrative, Awesome Pearl and Bodie Island. Demonstrative nearly won four consecutive Grade 1 starts, but settled for three and the overall earnings lead. He’s favored in the voting for the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser. Dakota Slew and Kisser N Run also helped propel the Valentine barn.

Marylander Cyril Murphy (left photo, with Decoy Daddy), who steered the bulk of leading owner Irv Naylor’s horses, also won 14 races on the year to tie Valentine for third from just 53 starts. Murphy put two horses in the top 10 – first-year novice Address Unknown (three wins, $91,500) and classy stakes veteran Decoy Daddy (unbeaten in three starts, $87,000). The former jump jockey also won a pair with rookie Choral Society and added a stakes with Able Deputy.

“I was absolutely delighted with our year,” Murphy said. “If someone had said we were going to have 14 winners, four stakes winners and a couple of graded stakes I would have taken it. I had horses expected to win, and fortunately they did and then some that weren’t even expected to run come on and do well.”

In addition to the stars, Murphy pointed out two-time winner American Ladie as a pleasant surprise, along with veteran Lake Placid and newcomer Choral Society. Like the action at most jump barns, things slow down considerably for the winter, though seven horses are being ridden for now. The rest get back to work in mid to late January.

Todd Wyatt’s small stable produced eight wins from just 29 jump starts, good for fifth on the list. There’s a big gap between the Fisher-Sheppard-Valentine-Murphy barns and everyone else, but Wyatt might be on the edge of filling in.

“We liked our horses at the beginning of the year and we had conditions, which helped,” said Wyatt of his 2014. “Winners make it fun and it seems easy when they’re winning.”

The 2014 squad included Armata Stable’s Saratoga winner Rudyard K, purchased out of a second at the Iroquois, plus rising timber horses Brother Sy and Raven’s Choice. The latter is an example of the potential of any Thoroughbred as he broke his maiden on the flat (at Belmont Park in 2010), over hurdles (at Great Meadow in 2011) and over timber (at the Grand National meet in 2013) for the same trainer. Ann Jackson’s 7-year-old, bred by her late husband Cary, is headed to the timber stakes division, and perhaps a date with some big fences in Maryland.

“His main goal (for 2015) is the Grand National and we’ll let the rest take care of itself,” Wyatt said. “He’s been good to us and has been a fun horse.”

Wyatt called Rudyard K a nice surprise, only because the horse was in someone else’s barn to start the year. Purchased by Armata Stable out of a second in the novice stakes at the Iroquois in May, the Ohio-bred son of Kipling won a Saratoga allowance in July. He went to the sidelines for the rest of the year with a tendon problem, but should be back by mid to late 2015.

“He’s won three races now and it’s deep water because he doesn’t really have any conditions left,” said Wyatt. “But he’s a nice horse and I think with time he could win a really nice race.”

The timber horses will foxhunt this winter, the hurdle horses will get a break and there’s still a flat horse or two – including Bishop’s Castle, who is in the seventh at Aqueduct Sunday afternoon. The son of Distorted Humor is 5-1 in his American debut and tries to give Wyatt his 10th win of 2014.

Neilson14Kathy Neilson (photo at right, center, after a win at the Colonial Cup)  joked all year about her horses’ habit of finishing second, but it sounded like nothing more than anecdote until the numbers came out. From 60 starts, her horses won six races, finished second a dozen times and third 10 more times. Convert half those seconds to wins, and she’s one of just five trainers to break double digits in wins. Nancy Reed’s Handsome Hoyt hinted at big things by winning the Raymond Woolfe Memorial 3-year-old stakes on the Colonial Cup undercard.

Leslie Young, Ricky Hendriks and Arch Kingsley each won six on the year (from less than 30 starts) with Hendriks collecting a double on the season’s final day with Wantan and Long House Saint for owner Rosbrian Farm. As Hendriks put it, the double was rare – and much appreciated.

“When you only have about 10 horses and two of them win on the same day, it’s a big deal,” he said at the annual awards dinner the night after the Colonial Cup. 

For more, see

National Steeplechase Association standings.

Tod Marks photo gallery from the Colonial Cup.