03/15/2012 12:47AM

Flatterer and friends


FLATTERER keeps company nowadays with a strong-willed, lively mare ten years his junior – although, at his age, nearly every mare is his junior.  After all, at age 33, Flatterer is among the sport’s oldest living Thoroughbreds.

“The two of them get along extremely well,” says owner William Pape, while watching Flatterer and My Tombola mosey around their 14-acre paddock.  “And these older guys, with the younger women…well, it moves them up and keeps them sound.”  He laughs.

Laughter comes easily to Pape, 81, who, like Flatterer, moves around with the energy of a younger man.   His beautifully maintained 90-acre property near Unionville, PA., is named My Way Farm.

“I was by myself with all of my business ventures," Pape says. "I couldn’t turn around in my chair and say ‘what do you think,’ because no one was there.  So everything was done my way.

“It’s a great song, too.”

Pape might have tackled many business ventures alone, but not horse racing.  For that, his main man, since 1967, has been Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.  They breed and own many horses in partnership.

“He was kind of hitchhiking along the road, needed a lift,” Pape says.  “I gave him a ride in my car, he had this bloody accent I didn’t understand, I couldn’t understand a damned thing he was saying to me but he seemed like a nice enough guy.

“I finally figured out what he did for a living and figured, what the hell, he’s a happy dude, I’ll have some fun with him.  So that’s how we got started.” 

Hitchhiking?  Jonathan Sheppard, hitchhiking?  

“Absolutely!” Pape says.  “He was hitchhiking on the road through life.”

My Way Farm is a haven to all sorts of animals, including white swans, ducks (from a nearby school, where they are hatched and raised), cattle, dogs, horses.  In one paddock, 2009 Eclipse Award champion jumper Mixed Up hangs out with the one-eyed retiree Dirge.  In another, a 7/8-warmblood mare named Bo Derek keeps company with $342,906-earner Asking for Luck.

Above/below:  Barbara Curtis feeds some swans on the property and, below, after a Philadelphia school hatches and raises ducks for the children's education, the birds are released at My Way Farm.  As is evidenced below, Canadian geese enjoy the chance to hang with the ducks, too.

Above:  'Bo Derek,' a lovely 7/8-warmblood mare, keeps company with Asking for Luck.   Asking for Luck, born in 1994 and bred by Pape and Sheppard, raced 56 times, won 11 races, and earned $342,906.  The kindly gelding, a former claimer, moved from barn to barn during his 8-year race career.  

"I bring the retirees home," says Pape.  "There are a couple of horses who have been claimed from us that we'll get when their finished with their racing careers.  This is where we want to keep them."

Above:  Dirge, a 2002 one-eyed gelding, was bred by Pape and Sheppard, raced by Pape and trained by Sheppard.  He earned $173,734 and raced until he was 9.  His final start was a claiming race in March 2011.  Mixed Up, a 1999 gelding bred by Pape and Sheppard, raced by Pape and trained by Sheppard, raced 56 times over 11 seasons.  The 2009 Eclipse Award champion jumper earned $773,011.

And then there are Flatterer and My Tombola.

Flatterer is one of America’s greatest steeplechase horses and the only jumper ever to win four consecutive Eclipse Awards (Lonesome Glory has five, but they were not consecutive).   Flatterer, bred by Pape and Sheppard and trained by Sheppard, won 24 of 51 starts and earned $538,708, according to most online sources. (Equibase’s stats reflect 24 wins in 52 starts with earnings of $534,834).  He was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 1994.

Flatterer's sire was Mo Bay, a hard-knocking stallion eventually sold to the Brazilian National Stud.  Flatterer's dam, Horizontal, was bought by Pape and Sheppard for a mere $4,000.  

Flatterer's career began at age 3 and he was a useful - if not overly promising - flat runner early on.  His past performances show a string of claiming races but, once he took to jumping, he sprouted wings.  He quickly became a dominant force with both a powerful turn of foot and fierce determination and in 1983, his first year jumping, he was named Eclipse Award champion.  

Year after year, the dark gelding dominated steeplechase racing. Among the highlights of his legendary career were 17 victories from 1983 through 1986, including an unparalleled four consecutive Colonial Cup wins.  He was also the first horse to win steeplechasing's Triple Crown: the American Grand National, Temple Gwathney and Colonial Cup. Among his other top stakes victories were the Turf Writers Cup, another Temple Gwathney, the Brook Steeplechase and the National Hunt Cup.  He won at three miles, set a new course record in his fourth Colonial Cup victory, and was of such world-class that he was even sent to Europe twice – to France and England, where fans cherish the sport and their horses.  There, in marquee events, he ran very credible seconds.  

Flatterer also accomplished something no other American horse had ever done: won under 176 pounds.  Carrying Jerry Fishback and lots of lead, Flatterer conceded from 26 to 40 pounds to his rivals in the 1986 National Hunt Cup – and won by 7 lengths.   The following year, under a record 178 pounds, Flatterer ran third in the Sport Council Handicap.

Sheppard often rode his trainee in the mornings, including some workouts.  And although it’s been a quarter-century now since Flatterer retired, Sheppard still readily remembers riding Flatterer in America, England, and France - and even in the snow, while bundled in a goose-down jacket and heavy boots. 

“He was a horse that I kind of thought that I rode better than some of the other riders, because he would put his head up and get a bit strong,” Sheppard recalls. “I knew how to ride him with a long rein….and keep him relaxed.”   

Sheppard, a remarkably attentive horseman, also remembers Flatterer’s last race, the 1987 Breeders’ Cup.  “(I have) a lot of memories in different ways, and obviously you try to draw more on the highs rather than the lows.  I just felt badly about running him that last time….” 

Flatterer, who’d had soundness issues from time to time, seemed fine in the days leading up to that Breeders’ Cup.  But, during the race, the 4/5 favorite went wrong and was pulled up by Richard Dunwoody.  The popular young Sheppard assistants Betsy Wells and Graham Motion led their beloved champion, limping, from the course.  Flatterer, with a bowed tendon, soon headed home.

Before long, a recovered Flatterer tried a second career: dressage.    Sheppard recalls, “We had all these ideas of riding him around the farm and taking him foxhunting, but really, we never got around to doing it because you’re busy trying to train horses.   The last thing you want to do on a cold winter’s day, after you finally got off your last horse, is to get on another one.”

Instead, a family friend and accomplished dressage rider named Lesa Williams decided to give Flatterer a whirl.  Before long, the old steeplechase champion – his head tucked down and his gait beautifully regulated, dressage style - was earning ribbons in his new profession. 

Above/below:  Lesa Williams and Flatterer, during Flatterer's dressage years.  At the time these photos were taken, Flatterer was 17.

Above:  Flatterer (left) and friends during his dressage years.

Above/below:  In 2001, a fully retired Flatterer stood proudly for portraits for the book "Old Friends."

Since his retirement from that second career Flatterer has resided at My Way – within view of Pape’s house.

On the day of my visit, Flatterer seemed quite content hanging around with Pape, all the while watching his friend’s hands to see if they might dip into his sugar-toting pockets.  The old champion looks grand for 33, with strong, straight legs, good muscle tone and only a slight dip to his back.  He is willing and curious.

Meanwhile, Flatterer’s friend My Tombola stood just out of reach, peering at Pape from behind Flatterer’s tail.  My Tombola, bred and raced by Sheppard, won 6 of 26 starts and earned just over $100,000.  It was as a broodmare where the powerful bay beauty excelled, however, producing the multiple stakes winner Divine Fortune for Pape and Sheppard.  Among his victories are back-to-back runnings of the A.P. Smithwick.

“’She’s been here with Flatterer ever since her last delivery - in 2007,” Pape says of My Tombola. “That was a rough delivery.  She’s been a good mare, and so enough’s enough.” 

My Tombola suddenly picked up her head and stared off into the distance, and, like a shot, trotted off across the field to the far corner.  At a relaxed pace, Flatterer, his woolly dark coat toned with subtle sunbleached red traces, followed.  Just what piqued My Tombola’s interest wasn’t evident, but even deer in a far-off field can get her excited.  “She’s still sharp as a tack,” Pape says.

Above/below:  William Pape visits with Flatterer, as My Tombola stays nearby.  Below, Pape and My Tombola.

Above/below: My Tombola, the dam of Divine Fortune, heads off to check something out - and, below, Hall of Fame champion Flatterer follows his girlfriend.

The equine senior citizens require little care, although Pape makes sure their every need is met.  Their large paddock contains a sizable run-in shed – with a south-facing opening to block northwest winds.  The shed is not only bedded down but also contains ample hay, and farm employee Barbara Curtis also regularly gives the two horses corn. 

Thoroughbreds rarely reach the benchmark of 30, let alone 33.  Sheppard has considered why Flatterer has lasted so long. 

“Dressage really changed his shape, because you know how the top line, the muscle structure - along the back and hindquarters - gets so different with that training they do,” he says.  “I think that’s helped him live longer than he might have.  I think it was very good for him.” 

As for Pape?  He enjoys his cherished old friend.

“When I’m in town I visit him every day, because if I didn’t, he’d feel like I was neglecting him,” he says with a smile.  “He wants his sugar, and what he wants, he gets.”  

Flatterer's past performances (according to Equibase): http://www.equibase.com/premium/eqbHorseInfo.cfm?refno=767812&registry=T

Flatterer's Hall of Fame page at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame website: http://www.racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/horses-view.asp?varID=72

Jonathan Sheppard's Hall of Fame page: http://www.racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/horse-trainers-view.asp?varID=54

My Tombola's past performances: http://www.equibase.com/premium/eqbHorseInfo.cfm?refno=1219656&registry=T

Very surprisingly, I was unable to find a single video of Flatterer anywhere online - or even a race video of recent A.P. Smithwick winner Divine Fortune.  If anyone has links to either, please post them - thanks!

Follow-up:  Sean Reid of ntlworld.com sent a note to let me know that there is a video of Flatterer running a fantastic second to See You Now in the 1987 Champion Hurdle.  Thank you, Sean!  (and to Joe Clancy for forwarding the information):