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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

SOMETHING DIFFERENT, UNDERAPPRECIATED, AND MISUNDERSTOOD: STEEPLECHASING

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 16, 2021 – Irony is no small part of modern American life and the timing of two events which took place within days of each other signals the closing of one era but also a fulcrum for growth in that same space on an international level.

Today marked the beginning of the four-day Cheltenham Festival, the world’s premier steeplechase meeting which this year is in position to attract its biggest viewership audience in a decade, according to Nielsen Sports. Two reasons:

Live attendance at racing events in the UK is still curtailed by Covid-19 restrictions, but also comes at a time when a concerted effort is being made to expand the appeal of steeplechase racing worldwide.

Unlike the U.S., steeplechasing and wagering has a large following in Europe. In America, this sector has limited appeal–a handful of races conducted on a handful of days in a handful of locations. Fortunately two of those days come at Saratoga where tradition has to be ripped from the cold pages of racing history.

The bigger of two historic steeplechase events is the New York Turf Writers’ Cup. But not any longer. The 2-3/8 mile handicap will be conducted this year, on August 19, but the event has been renamed the Jonathan Sheppard in honor of a Hall of Famer who was steeplechasing to me throughout a career as racetrack Scribner.  

This accolade comes with apologies to W. Burling Cocks, the Alydar to Sheppard’s Affirmed, and to Jack Fisher, the dominant trainer of the last decade. Cocks not only was a great horseman but a mentor to so many successful proteges who learned the trade in his shedrow, in the manner of “the Coach,” Darrel Wayne Lukas.

The renaming of the Turf Writers’ to the Sheppard could not be more appropriate and deserving on two levels.

The race deserves more respect than it was getting in recent years from a now defunct charitable turf-writers organization that once boasted a membership including the sport’s most influential wordsmiths: Red Smith, Bill Leggett, William H. Rudy, Barney Nagler, Bill Nack and Joe Hirsch at once leap to mind.

But what better name could be inscribed on this year’s Grade 1 trophy than that of Sheppard who, in an era in which I learned to appreciate the sport,  was steeplechasing in America.

Frankly, the organization no longer deserved to be honored with a race in its name. Once upon a time it did. It was tweed jackets and watercress sandwiches for all my friends.

But when one former NYTWA President quit in a fit of pique, Daily Racing Form’s David Grening and Irwin Cohen were the only members who stepped into the breach to continue the writers’ organization. They held it together as long as they could, and none of it would have been possible without the efforts of Secretary Shirley Day Smith.

Lamentably, the organization didn’t think enough of its history to maintain viability, dishonoring the memory of all deserving award winners, hundreds of industry legends through the years, who were feted for their accomplishments at the annual awards dinner at Saratoga’s toney Gideon Putnam Hotel.

I served two terms as President and have a prized possession to prove it, a sketch of me conducting a meeting by the great caricaturist Pierre Bellocq, better known as Peb, who also was a member. I always wondered whether I deserved to be in an organization that would have me as its President.

“It seems fitting that one of the premier steeplechase stakes in the country is going to be named in honor of Jonathan Sheppard,” was the reaction of Bill Gallo, Director of Racing for the National Steeplechase Association. “He has been the dominant force in American steeplechase racing for decades, particularly at Saratoga where his success gained national attention…”

The 80-year-old Sheppard announced his retirement earlier this year, ending a 56-year racing career in which he was the leading National Steeplechase Association trainer 26 times, developing 15 Eclipse Award champions over hurdles and on the flat.

In addition, Sheppard set a DiMaggio-Stephens-like mark, saddling at least one winner in Saratoga for 47 straight years, 1969 through 2015. During that span he won the Turf Writers’ Cup a record 15 times. Twice in the 1980’s, he won back-to-back Saratoga meet training titles.

A native of Ashwell, England, Sheppard is the winningest trainer in U.S. jump-racing history, one of only two trainers to win championships with both flat and jump horses.

According to Equibase, Sheppard saddled 20,997 starters, compiling an across-the-board record of 3,426, 3,099, and 2,975. That’s a remarkable 45% money, and 31% exacta finishers, over 56 years.

Meanwhile, the Cheltenham Festival which runs through Friday hopes to grow in the same manner whereby TVG help keep U.S. parimutuel handle flat despite track closures and spectatorless sport by providing all the product that house-bound horseplayers needed to remain engaged.

This year’s projected audience increase is based on the notion that six of each day’s seven-race programs will be broadcast free on television. Post times between races will be shortened, too, 35 minutes compared to the traditional 40.

Racing officials believe those five extra minutes will allow for increased sponsorship revenue and a branding win-win for key supporters, most of which are betting shops. Based on the Nielsen projections, the 2021 Cheltenham audience could increase to four million viewers.

As for steeplechasing, it thrives because of its diversity from standard fare. I remember having several battles with former colleagues who argued “I don’t bet on horses that leave the ground.”

Once I was moved to do a five-year study of America’s many, albeit brief steeplechase meets, and showed the naysayers that favorites won at nearly a 50% rate. Not even the most super of super-trainers could rival such a winning percentage.

We look forward to the balance of the Cheltenham Festival and for Jonathan Sheppard to present the former Turf Writer’s trophy to the winning connections of the Grade 1 Sheppard at Saratoga come August.

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15 Responses

  1. This is a great piece and appropriate to honor the amazing career of Sheppard. The 47 year win mark at Saratoga is mind boggling especially when you consider a good portion of it came during the classic 24 day meet.

    1. Thanks for the props Peter and an easy piece to write, Mr. Sheppard is truly extraordinary on so many levels. And he did his job the right way!

  2. Nice note about a specialty distance trainer who kept steeplechasing as an interesting, albeit secondary style of racing because of the endurance of the participating route horses and thanks to Saratoga, with it’s early daily double races, it was a reminder that horses don’t just run 6 for as at the Los Alamitos track, just some 300 yards during which a slow start means that that horse won’t be in the money. Augustin Stables was of the few that I ever visited more than once, admiring such muscular and yet lean routers who only ran a few times x season. Long distance tradition is well and alive still in French, British and Australian tracks but none of those trainers will ever be close to Sheppard’s winnings or devotion to this sport. There won’t ever be another one like him and his connections in different states, from upstate New York to Camden, S.C.

    1. Nicely stated James and it does a heart good to read that a dyed in the wool horseplayer such as yourself appreciates steeplechasing. Since you enjoy it they tell me the Far Hills weekend in New Jersey is a great tailgate party with top racing too.

      Trying to remember, I think they gained permission to conduct wagering, which wasn’t always the case. That’s something the Meadowlands Sportsbook should get behind…

  3. Dyed in the wool, moi? We have to change our opinions, sides, thinking and, bets according to new facts, evidence and updated new input! But many times we still have to rely on what’s been subjectively and steadily working, both on and off the track, field or court. Got to admit though that I voluntarily skipped most program opening races at the Spa and Belmont if they happened to be those long routes with green gates/obstacles. I would rather check the Double board. By the way, some if those PP lines have been rather incomplete, without enough info, or not easily translated ,transported into what we are used to with American lines ,track conditions and short comments. Would I rather pick a winner with a slow time or another horse who came in into the $ in a faster race? How reliable are those track conditions(yielding, soft, good, etc.) from those Brit, Irish or Aussie publications? Meaning that too many times their soft track is considered, good or fast to them while on this side of the Atlantic Ocean is called slow or yielding. Aren’t we all glad that ,maybe, no other country offers as much info as DRF and other publications do that specialize in Horseracing? It Reminds me of how sometimes, rarely, a regular NY colony jockey tried to ride in a steeplechase race with a horse that usually closed well in a flat route. I don’t think that they had much success. Nascar drivers don’t win many Formula One races, nor vice versa. Stick to your ability…many times I whisper to myself😷

    1. Two things: No two grass courses are created equal; similar characteristics, but different. Labeling courses is different, IMO, because America is interested more in speed and use more technology. Elsewhere, nature seems to take its course…

  4. How much difference does that extra weight makes on Steeple favorites ? Just as little as when we used to pay attention to that angle in Allowance and Stakes Sprint races ? Extra poundage(20-30lbs) on a long race should be a hindrance but it seems not to matter,they win their % of the time. Glorious wonders !

    1. JG: I’m a big believer in weight as an equalizer but if the animals are clearly superior, they overcome. For males, I’m thinking Kelso and Dr. Fager off the top; for fillies, the crack sprinter, Affectionately.

      Weight carrying ability, IMO, is one of the best qualifying definitions for greatness.

  5. I’m in total agreement on the renaming of the NY Turf Writer’s to the Sheppard. Back when I was covering racing on a more full time basis, I had the pleasure to report on Mr. Sheppard’s barn. He was a true gentleman in every way. Glad to see NY finally get one right.

    1. Agreed, now if only the Met Mile were rescheduled back to Memorial Day, NYRA could take two steps in the right direction…

  6. Watched a couple of today’s Cheltenham s early races, one favorite won with a female jockey on and,as usual, nothing much happens in the
    first 3.5 kilometers of a 4 km- plus marathon of a quiet race of over $ 350,000 even if early speed seems to be an advantage as they gallop on these uneven grounds…. Twenty-plus horses in a race? What’s this, The Charge of the Light Brigade? Intriguing show but not to be had on a daily basis. Not much info about the competitors unlike what’s offered by the local feeds on NYRA,TVG,, and why is it that numbers are all in one color, white, and not distinguished by their numbers? I mean, we don’t know their silks and with so many horses in a race it’s not always easy to find the chosen horse(s) as they run for the finish. I’m sure it would help the callers, also. Got to mention the so called riding style, different indeed, not better, just different. Former US jockeys Asmussen, Cauthen would agree!

  7. JGR,

    European racing is an acquired taste for Americans for all the things you mention; large fields, riding styles, different courses, straight, right hand, left had, etc. And with chasing, it’s key to concentrate on whether horses jump over or through the hedges, how they take off, land, etc., and yes, info every sketchy. But horseplayers on other parts of the world KNOW their horses and they watch races carefully, go beyond the PPs. Like America, though, you have to follow the trainers that win!

  8. The latter part of your wise input Has to be one of the best indications that anyone can offer, and Not just in betting,gambling. Pick Your Spots. ” Use Your Talents ” ! Touche’ !😷🤔

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