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.