Backseat driving with a Hall of Famer

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“Joe, you’ll have to jump in the back. This briefcase, I have to prop it open with a piece of wood and keep it balanced just so.”

The briefcase sat on the front seat of trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s Audi wagon Monday morning at Fair Hill. Sheppard was headed from the barn to the track to watch a set of workers. I was tagging along, trying to get some information for an article. And there was no room in the front, not without moving/disturbing that briefcase.

So I jumped in the back.

And hoped nobody saw me sitting in the backseat like Miss Daisy on a trip to the market. I sat and asked questions. Sheppard drove and answered. It was strange, but effective, and enlightening. On the short drive to the track and some time at the clockers’ stand, Sheppard talked about training, jockeys, facilities and – wonderfully – keying in on the various individualities of Thoroughbred horses. Sheppard trains everything from 2-year-old speedsters to 10-year-old steeplechase stakes contenders. He tries to figure out them all, while also putting them into a training program that has produced for decades.

The conversation started with Divine Fortune and rolled through the steeplechase stable – Italian Wedding, Martini Brother, Hunt Ball, Cubist and the rest. Monday and Tuesday, they all worked 6 furlongs on the Tapeta surface at Fair Hill. They went quickly, especially for steeplechasers, and shed some light on Sheppard’s strategy. The horses get fit training on the hills and over the fields on the farm in Pennsylvania. They get fast on the track at Fair Hill, or Saratoga, Delaware Park or wherever Sheppard sets up a base. Sheppard has a wood-chip track – it’s not quite oval, definitely not level and has no outside rail – at home, but he has routinely used real racetracks for fine-tuning. Twenty-five (give or take) years ago, he shipped to the dirt at Garden State Park or Keystone.

Now, it’s an artificial surface of sand, wax and rubber at Fair Hill. Sheppard called this week’s traveling party to Fair Hill – where he rents stalls in the equine therapy center – a necessity on several levels.

“I like the surface, I think it’s good surface to train on,” he said of the Tapeta. “Our track had six inches of water on it the other day. The fields are too soft, the track’s kind of deep, they think it might be OK soon. You could work if you had to, but I planned to bring these here anyway.”

These included five (yes, five) entrants in the year’s richest jump race – the $250,000 Grand National at Far Hills. Twelve run in the 2 5/8-mile test. Sheppard’s quintet consists of Italian Wedding, Hunt Ball, Barnstorming, Divine Fortune and Martini Brother. They’re all players, depending on the circumstances. The Sheppard van(s) will be full Saturday as the Hall of Famer runs 11 at Far Hills – five in the Grand National, one in the 3-year-old, one in the maiden, one in the filly/mare, two in the first division of the novice and one in the second.

The joke around the barn centers on finding enough racing bridles for the day, which also includes four flat runners at Keeneland.

 They’ll find the tack, just as Sheppard finds the key to each runner – somehow.

Sunday, he’ll send 5-year-old mare Sheppard’s Pie to Keeneland for the $125,000 Rood and Riddle Dowager Stakes after working to solve some peculiar workout habits. Riders told Sheppard the Pennsylvania-bred daughter of Include was not finishing her works through the stretch, but was running off afterward. The trainer hatched a new plan, which he and exercise rider Bridget McFadden put to use Monday.

Sheppard’s Pie breezed 5 furlongs – 1:01 on the Tapeta – in what looks normal enough in print. Live, the work resembled something that went terrible wrong as Sheppard’s Pie covered the 5 furlongs between the eighth pole in mid-stretch and the half-mile pole on the backside.

“She did that nicely,” Sheppard said afterward. “She wasn’t putting enough into her works so we tried something different.”

 

Bits and Pieces

Sheppard, as his car tried to adjust its sport-savvy suspension – up, down, sideways – without prompting: “You ready for the bells and whistles?”

2006: Year of the Morven Park Races program in the seat-back pocket in Sheppard’s car (he won one).

Traveling Man: Sheppard’s week included stops to see horses at Keeneland in Kentucky, the farm in Pennsylvania, Delaware Park, Fair Hill and Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C.

 

Jump jockey turned Team Valor exercise rider Brian Crowley, whose English is heavy on the Irish: “The last piece of work I did for Mr. Sheppard, he had to ask someone what I said.”