Visiting the barn at Sheppard’s

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Equal parts chaos and control, fun and function, mess and masterminded, trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s barn near Unionville, Pa. bustles with Thoroughbreds of every shape, size, age and background. Especially in March, and especially this year.

The squad includes 2-year-olds going through early lessons, veteran steeplechasers cranking up old bones, a Keeneland-bound stakes horse or two, an unretired timber horse and even a 4-year-old by leading sire Giant’s Causeway out of Breeders’ Cup winner Maram.

All, according to Sheppard, come with low expectations.

“We’re light on jumpers, and a bit light on proven flat horses too,” he said. “We have a few longshot maidens which might turn out all right and apart from that we don’t have that much to run. Rebuilding, I guess you could say. We’re starting over a little bit, but we’re not about to quit just yet.”

For the first time since 1970 or so, Sheppard has no horses for Augustin Stable and only a few for another longtime client Bill Pape. In addition, Sheppard’s horses are consolidated into one barn on property he owns on the south side of Route 926 at Lamborntown Road rather than split between that facility and a rented complex across the road. The move ends an era – the likes of Storm Cat and Flatterer called the old barn home – and also means longtime assistant Jim Bergen has moved on to Michael Dickinson’s.

The changes have created opportunities for others, though, as the barn includes a big slate of 2-year-olds and some new names under the direction of assistant Keri Brion, Bailey Poorman and crew. The 2-year-old group numbers 16, some foaled on the farm and others representing various breeders and buyers. An owner called to ask if Sheppard had room for some additional 2-year-olds. A Hall of Famer since 1990, the 75-year-old responded like any trainer.

“If we don’t, we’ll make room.”

So what’s in the barn? Start at the beginning, and stop at a few stalls along the way. This isn’t every trainee, but it is most of them and a representative sampling.

Italian Wedding: The Grade 1-winning steeplechaser occupies champion Divine Fortune’s former stall, by the entryway. It’s a place of honor and recognition. “Sausage” and “Fortune,” who died of a broken shoulder at Saratoga last summer, were pals. The 11-year-old, idle since 2014, eyes another comeback.

Quick Learner: The homebred 2-year-old son of Jump Start and Smarter Sister looks like one of the more forward members of the crop. His dam won three times on the flat for Sheppard and The Elkstone Group, but fractured an ankle in her final start and became a broodmare in 2010.

Last Shani: The 2-year-old son of Spring At Last and champion filly/mare hurdler Sweet Shani is a plain bay – with a scar on his forehead that makes him look tough – with a great story. His dam won major jump races in Australia and the United States, frequently hooking the best males in the game, and died after giving birth to her only foal. Her colt was raised by a draft horse nurse mare. She loved him, he loved her and now he’s on his way. “He gets very attached to people, I think it’s because his mom died,” said Brion, who rides him every day. “He’s actually very forward. It’s hard to tell because he hasn’t breezed yet but you think he could run this fall the way he acts right now. He’s a tank. We call him Sean. You can’t call him Shani, that’s not right so he’s Sean. He’s a good boy.”

Sheppard’s young horses get started as yearlings like others, then take a roughly 60-day break in the winter. Hairy, rough and frequently dirty, they’d look out of place at a breeze sale, but they’re in work and coming along.

“They were galloping a mile-and-a-quarter up until Christmas and then they had off until the middle of February,” said Brion. “They all get turned out together on the infield of the (training) track and wreak havoc. The more backward ones are out of work, but the rest are back in work – they jogged for two weeks and are galloping now.”

Ebullience: The 3-year-old half-brother to Italian Wedding by Fairbanks was trying to treat himself with a jar of Healex antiseptic ointment during this visit. Brion fished the medicine out of the stall with a mild reprimand and then called the maiden “an amazing jumper” who will head to the turf after three dirt tries. He can’t take a lid off a jar though.

Invigorating: The third member of his family in the same shedrow, the 2-year-old is a half-brother to Italian Wedding and Ebullience. A little smaller than Last Shani, the chestnut son of Cape Blanco will get every chance to prove himself worthy of all-star broodmare Effervescent.

Aflutter: A half-brother to steeplechase stakes winner Parker’s Storm Cat, Hudson River Farm’s 6-year-old looks to start a jump career. He hasn’t run since 2014, and has been getting fit with the Cheshire Foxhounds this winter.

Sal The Barber: Owner/breeder Lewis Schaffel’s 10-year-old graded stakes winner on the flat looks for his first jump win after missing 2015.

Able Archer: A winner two nights earlier at Penn National, the KMSN Stable color-bearer eyes a move to hurdles this year. The son of Eskendereya might “end up pretty nice,” as Brion put it.

Rocket Star Red: No, he’s not a Quarter Horse. He is, however, an inexpensive purchase off Facebook who might have a future as a steeplechaser. The 4-year-old won once on the flat, and wound up with trainer Mike Maker and assistant Mattie Martin. Brion recognized the horse’s breeding – Sheppard’s client Rodman Moorhead spent $155,000 to buy dam Sanibel Star at Keeneland January 2014. “We have his 2-year-old brother (by City Zip) in the barn. What are the odds?” Brion said. “He’s a cool horse, he went hunting a month after he came off the track and jumps almost too well.”

Snuggling: A 2-year-old by Cape Blanco out of Let’s Canoodle, which makes him a half-brother to Parker’s Storm Cat and Aflutter.

As You Like It: Here’s your Sheppard maiden hurdler for the spring (well, one of them). The son of Shakespeare lost four starts on the flat, but likes farm life and schools well in the indoor.

Brevard Place: Sheppard with a Quality Road 2-year-old? Yes. This one is out of Lovely Stay, a mare Sheppard trained for and bought from Augustin a few years ago.

Junonia: Sheppard with a City Zip 2-year-old? Yes. Moorhead bred and owns the gray/roan and came up with a nice name. A junonia is a rare mollusk, the shells of which occasionally wash up on Sanibel Island in Florida.

Alcazar de Maram: Sire Giant’s Causeway was Europe’s Horse of the Year in 2000 and is a champion sire annually ranked in the top 10 in North America. Dam Maram earned $900,000 and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2008. Not that Alcazar de Maram much cares. He’s lost four flat starts for Bill Mott and works pretty hard at trying to pull his stall door screen off the hinges. The big, burly 4-year-old colt will get a freshening and some jumping lessons. Where he goes from there is up to him. “He was kind of sour when he got here, but we’ve been jumping him and messing around with him,” said Brion. “He’s a great jumper.” Sheppard likes what he sees so far. “He seems to gallop all day, never takes a deep breath,” he said. “They said jumper, but now they might think about the flat a little bit. He’s got a ways to go, but seems OK.”

Rare Mix: The 5-year-old mare has won twice in three starts, but hasn’t run since July after a near-fatal colic attack. She had surgery and is on the comeback trail.

Rose Tree: Sheppard and Moorhead bought her dam Amusing (carrying this Harlan’s Holiday filly) from Claiborne Farm at Keeneland in 2014, spending $280,000. Brion likes what she sees, “She’s pretty darn nice and very forward.”

Barnstorming: At 10, call him a role model for the youngsters up and down the shedrow. He’s placed in three Grade 1 stakes over jumps, but hasn’t won since 2013. His 2015 ended after the Iroquois in May, and he could return by Saratoga or the fall. Hopefully, the big bump on his noggin, from getting kicked (or something) out in the field, is gone by then.

Inverness: She’s a promising Giant’s Causeway 2-year-old and a half-sister to Able Archer and Lakota.

Castle Hill: Want to make Brion’s day? Ask her about this horse. She calls him a future champion. Remember where you heard it first. The Munnings 4-year-old, owned and bred by Ann and Bill Pape, won his debut last summer at Penn National and heads to a maiden hurdle this spring. He’s also won two training flat races with Brion in the saddle. “This is the best horse in the barn,” said an admittedly biased Brion. “He’s jumped a ton. I could see him in a good maiden race, maybe Nashville, but I don’t know. He does everything very nicely.  His jumping is really good, impeccable. He’s just got a way about him, too, I love him.” Really? We didn’t notice.

Lakota: The 3-year-old filly was sound asleep on this day, but woke up long enough to say hello to some visitors. She was second in two starts last year for KMSN Stable, including a small stakes at Delaware Park.

Strawbridge: Yes, that’s his name. The Munnings 4-year-old won at Presque Isle Downs last year.

All the Way Jose: Champion novice hurdler of 2014, the now 6-year-old endured a rough 2015 – failing to finish in two of three starts. He had off-season wind surgery at Cornell University and looks to get back to winning this spring. With three hurdle wins, he’ll have to tackle some tough competition but might find a spot under the top level. “He’s hunted, he feels really good,” said Brion. The son of Senor Swinger has worked twice at Hannum’s Hill, a stamina-sapping gallop near the farm, and recently worked a half-mile on Sheppard’s wood-chip track. “They never heard any noise out of him at all,” said Sheppard. “He was making a fairly significant noise (last year) so we’ll see.”

Codrington College: A winner on the flat at Nashville last year for Hudson River, the Irish-bred will skip jump racing for now and aim to restart the flat career after missing the second half of last year.

Forgiving: One of a few youngsters by Redeemed in the barn, this 2-year-old filly is out of filly/mare hurdle champion Confined. “She’s massive and she’s really nice,” said Brion. Nice name.

Penitence: Castle Hill’s 2-year-old half-sister by Redeemed out of Push My Luck. Another fantastic name.

Expecting: Confined’s 3-year-old daughter by Rimrod. She hasn’t run yet.

Outsider Art: She placed in Keeneland’s Grade 3 Jessamine last year and is cranking back up for a return to the Kentucky track – perhaps in the Grade 3 Appalachian – for owner/breeder Delmar Pettigrew. The 3-year-old daughter of Five Star Day won her first two starts at Saratoga and Kentucky Downs. “She’s a May foal and dropped a lot of weight after she ran last year,” said Brion. “It was kind of a rough campaign for her, but she’s coming back.”

Nationbuilder: Yes, Nationbuilder. The 12-year-old was retired in 2014, supposedly as a foxhunter for neighbor and Sheppard contemporary Dixon Stroud. The new career didn’t agree with the horse, or the rider. “He’s easy to ride, but he’s on the muscle and probably too much for some riders,” Brion said. “We can see if he still wants to do it. If he doesn’t, he can go hunt with someone. We’ll find him a home or a job.” Brion said the son of Came Home has foxhunted with Cheshire and could turn up at a spring timber race.

Itsjustagame: Owned by veterinarian Dr. David Levine, the 5-year-old son of Purge (like Sheppard-trained hurdle stakes winner Bluegrass Summer) has won three of 12 and will look for some flat spots and perhaps a move to jumps.

Like everyone in the Mid-Atlantic, Sheppard’s team dealt with the varied winter weather but managed to produce fit horses. The blizzard derailed pretty much everything for about three days. A farm-based employee cared for the horses on the first day, when no one else could navigate the roads. Horses hand-walked in the barn the second day. Day three was spent shoveling and plowing paths to paddocks and round pens for some turnout time. And then training started again.

“The horses got so fit from galloping through that snow,” said Brion. “Then we went back on the track and were all getting run off.”