Together in California

- -

Jonathan Sheppard couldn’t remember if he’d ever sent a horse to Santa Anita. Now, he’ll never forget.

Augustin Stable’s Forever Together blew past the best female grass horses to win the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf Oct. 24.

The 4-year-old daughter of Belong To Me won the first three starts of her career on the main track, including the Grade II Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park in March 2007. She came within a neck of taking the Grade II Beaumont over the Keeneland Polytrack, but soured on Sheppard soon after, failing to win – or threaten – in her next four starts. Always a horse with her own mind, Forever Together went to Keeneland as part of Sheppard’s small Kentucky string. And turned things around.

“She really started to thrive when we got her to Keeneland. She was there for about six weeks this spring and just loved the climate and ambiance,” Sheppard said. “Barry Wiseman deserves a lot of credit too because he worked with her a lot there, especially on her temperment, and then everything just jelled and she took off from there.”

Forever Together next ran in a turf stakes at Arlington Park at 1 mile May 17. She won going away. Sheppard thought so highly of the effort he entered her in the Grade I Just A Game at the same distance on the Belmont Stakes undercard. She rallied from last in the field of 10 to finish third. Forever Together had arrived, though turf wasn’t the sole reason.

“Switching her over to grass was obviously one of the keys to the turnaround,” Sheppard said, “but she also stopped fretting on us. She’s an extremely intelligent and rather opinionated horse. When we left Florida with her we couldn’t even get her to train, she wouldn’t even gallop for us.”

Forever Together galloped in the Grade I Diana at Saratoga, rallying from 10th and last, some 15 lengths behind, to win over another exceptional field. She ran third in the Grade II Canadian Stakes at Woodbine Sept. 7 and then annexed Keeneland’s Grade I First Lady Oct. 3. That was the perfect tightener, but questions about Forever Together’s ability to handle the 10 furlongs of the Filly and Mare Turf abounded. Sheppard wasn’t worried about the distance.

“She closed like a house of fire in the Diana at 1 1/8 miles on good ground, so I didn’t have too many worries about the distance out there because I knew it would be over firm ground,” Sheppard said. “I wasn’t quite sure if she would have enough time to wear down the leaders because I know that course can be speed favoring and it’s only a seven-eighths of a mile turf course.”

Forever Together settled in seventh under Julien Leparoux. She ranged up five-wide turning for home, but was eighth in the stretch. With a decisive burst, she rallied past the field inside the final furlong to score a three-quarter-length win in an effort that essentially clinched the Eclipse Award for outstanding female grass horse.

Asked Friday evening, Sheppard was hardly surprised that his filly had visited the winner’s circle. The answer wasn’t quite the same in late February.

“I never thought that at the beginning of the year I’d be standing here talking about winning a Breeders’ Cup race with this filly,” Sheppard said. “When I think back to her last three races in Florida, where she couldn’t even beat average horses, to winning back-to-back Grade I races, I can’t even imagine it.”

Forever Together finished with a 4-for-7 mark on the season, with three Grade I wins and $1,803,993 in earnings. She’s a near lock to win the Eclipse Award as the outstanding grass female in America and plans call for a return for her 5-year-old season.

• Top jump jockey Danielle Hodsdon, also a key Sheppard assistant, skipped Aiken to accompany Forever Together to the Breeders’ Cup – riding the filly in the mornings and leading her over to the paddock for the race.

• Steeplechase participants Jen Patterson and Bob Chapman handled important assignments at the Breeders’ Cup as well.

Patterson, daughter of NSA steward Duncan Patterson, galloped all four of Shug McGaughey’s runners while Chapman handled the riding duties on Godolphin’s Cocoa Beach.

McGaughey’s turf stalwart Dancing Forever rebounded from two disappointing runs over soft turf to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. The big chestnut son of Rahy represented the best American finish in the $2 million race, winding up third behind England’s Conduit and Eagle Mountain.

“He proved he’s the best American turf horse,” Patterson said. “He’s an amazing horse to ride and it’s an amazing experience to be out here with all these great horseman and horses. I miss jump racing at times, but being in California for the Breeders’ Cup is something special.”

Former jockey Chapman, who rode primarily for trainer Gerald Oxley, has been working in Godolphin’s engine room for years and came to California at the controls of Cocoa Beach.

The Chilean-bred 4-year-old vaulted fresh off an upset of champion Ginger Punch in the Beldame. Cocoa Beach got the closest of anybody to the undefeated Zenyatta, finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic. Chapman was aboard Cocoa Beach for her bullet work six days before the Breeders’ Cup.

“I was strictly a passenger, hanging on for dear life,” Chapman said of the 57 4/5-second drill.

More from the flat world

• Informed Decision did her part to carry the Sheppard-Augustin banner, lighting up the Keeneland Polytrack Oct.18 (the same day as Far Hills) in 1:20.86 to set a 7-furlong track record while winning the Grade II Raven Run. The 3-year-old daughter of Monarchos has won five of seven starts in 2008, including her debut in January. Deemed a “running machine” by Sheppard, Informed Decision will remain in training and should reappear in late winter.

• Sheppard wasn’t the only steeplechase trainer to get a trophy from Keeneland. About an hour before Informed Decision won the Raven Run, Tom Voss sent out Always First to take the Grade III Sycamore. A multiple graded-stakes winner, Always First won for the first time since taking the Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park in September 2007. His start in the 12-furlong Sycamore marked his ninth consecutive run at the marathon distance.