Danielle Hodsdon and Jonathan Sheppard had a very good week – in public.
The jockey and trainer put the finishing touches on Forever Together; the Eclipse Award winner promptly went out and won her second Diana Handicap. Two days later, Sheppard ran a jumper in a mile-and-a-half turf race and put up a jump rider; Sermon Of Love and Hodsdon did the rest. Three days later, the real big horse of the barn stepped up again to win the A.P. Smithwick Memorial, the first Grade I steeplechase of the meet. That’s a good week.
Behind the scenes, the stable shelved three stakes horses to bowed tendons and lost a homebred to founder. That’s a bad week.
Sheppard walked to the clubhouse replay center after the Smithwick and had both sides on his mind.
“It’s just such a funny game,” Sheppard said. “It did mean a little bit extra to me today because we’ve had three horses bow and one die in the last week.”
Ten years old and going strong, Mixed Up settled in the back of the six-horse field, slipped out of an impending trap on the turn, flew the last and ran down pacesetter Preemptive Strike to win by a half-length. Owned by Bill Pape, Mixed Up won for the 17th time in his 45-race career. It was win number 11 over jumps for the Pennsylvania homebred who increased his career earnings to $684,017.
Sheppard did the unthinkable when he took Mixed Up off Lasix this spring. The Hall of Fame trainer experimented last summer in a training flat race, skipping the anti-bleeding medication and took it away for good when he sent out Mixed Up for his 10-year-old debut at Aiken. Mixed Up ended a four-race losing streak with a nose victory, his first since winning the 2007 Smithwick and the Lasix has stayed in the vet’s truck ever since.
“He didn’t run well in the Turf Writers here two years ago and then we ran him back in the Lonesome Glory and he nearly collapsed after the race, when we finally got him back to the barn and did some tests, they said he was very badly dehydrated and had a potassium imbalance, it could have been a result of having too much Lasix,” Sheppard said. “He ran three times up here, he got Lasix when he worked each time that summer, it was humid, I wonder if these horses need all this Lasix we give them anyway, so I said, ‘shoot, I’m going to try him without it.’ It was a little bit of a risk but he’s been fine ever since.”
After Aiken, Sheppard shopped around like he was snipping coupons, picking up an easy check at Tryon before getting bogged down in soft turf at the Iroquois. Freshened for the summer, Mixed Up couldn’t run with the lone speed, Slip Away, in the Zeke Ferguson at Colonial Downs. He was beaten 5 lengths. Nobody worried in the Sheppard camp. Saratoga loomed and Mixed Up, the most accomplished runner in the field, would carry 146 pounds, the lowest on his chart.
“In the Zeke, he came off the bridle turning down the back and I had to start niggling. I know he’s going to give me something turning for home but he’s never been a horse that I usually have to start niggling at that point,” Hodsdon said. “I think he needed the race a little bit, the course is a little bit different, the speed being so far out in front, I’m not sure. I never worried about it coming here because I knew that race would set him up and I knew he was sharp enough here. He was better here than he was then.”
Sheppard followers chalked up the Ferguson as a prep and hammered Mixed Up early for the Smithwick. He opened up at 1-2. Yeah, 1-2, then drifted up to 5-2 while Slip Away took most of the late money, eventually going off favorite.
A winner of six in a row, Slip Away found a comfortable spot in third, well off the pace set by 11-year-old Preemptive Strike. Rare Bush, wearing blinkers for the first time, pulled Xavier Aizpuru into second. Dark Equation, Mixed Up and Planets Aligned relaxed in their own time in the back.
Down the backside the final time, Preemptive Strike continued to jump boldly while Rare Bush retreated and Dark Equation came under pressure. Slip Away fought hard as Mixed Up and Planets Aligned began to move. Chip Miller on Planets Aligned went from the outside to the inside, while Hodsdon opted to go from the inside to the outside.
Turning for home, Mixed Up pulled out for the passing lane on the right. Planets Aligned aimed for the lane on the left. The only trouble was the game Preemptive Strike hadn’t pulled his parachute. He gunned the last and suddenly appeared to have both rivals reeling. Calling on his flat form, Mixed Up kicked and blew past Preemptive Strike to win by a half-length. Planets Aligned finished third.
“He traveled today. I’ve ridden the horse a million times, he probably jumped better, consistently for the whole time, better today than he’s ever done,” Hodsdon said. “I thought he was traveling great, just toting me the whole way.”
Three thrills in eight days. Hodsdon breezed Forever Together in 57 and 3/5 seconds on Opening Day. She watched her win the Diana on the opening Saturday. Hodsdon won her first flat race at Saratoga Monday. On Thursday, she won the Smithwick. Nerves? Hardly.
“Normally I’m really nervous about riding Mixed Up, not that there’s a lot of pressure because he owes us nothing, but he’s been a nerve-wracking horse. Today I wasn’t nervous at all, I don’t know if that’s just because the other stuff is behind us,” Hodsdon said. “I don’t actually get nervous working Forever, I know I messed it up a bit the other day, but she overcame it. The flat race, I was so excited, I got a little nervous before we actually went out there, what if I do something really stupid and I’m up here with these guys in New York? I know I don’t really belong riding with them but I wanted one shot to do it.”
Congratulated for a good meet, Hodsdon didn’t miss a beat there either.
“It’s a heck of a start.”