10/17/2009 5:30PM


Email Jonathan Sheppard was asked if he was discouraged with the performance of champion turf mare Forever Together last weekend in the First Lady Stakes at Keeneland. After all, the mare was sustaining a second straight defeat, and third in four starts this year. She lagged far back early, under Julien Leparoux, and came on at the end to be third, 1 1/2 lengths back of Diamondrella. It was fair to wonder if this was the same Forever Together who won the 2008 First Lady and then came right back to take the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita. On Nov. 6, she will try to become the first horse to win the race in consecutive years. "I thought she ran absolutely brilliantly," Sheppard said of the First Lady. "Even she couldn’t quite make up the 25 lengths she was asked to in the last half mile. She made up 23 ½ of them I think." Sheppard was exaggerating, but only a little bit. The chart will show Forever Together about 21 lengths back at the half. Still, champions are supposed to overcome such circumstances, aren't they? "I guess that’s what the jockey was thinking," Sheppard replied. "He was extremely frustrated after the race. He was sort of blaming another horse through the early part of the race who was at the back of the pack directly to his outside, trying to keep him pinned down in there for longer than he wanted. It seemed every time he tried to sort of slow up slightly to try to ease out behind the other horse slowed up to. My recollection is that this was true through the stretch run the first time and around the turn. But once they got halfway down the backside I thought we were clear last on our own, with room to get out and start moving up a little bit. He chose not to do that and I don’t know why." For better or worse, champions who stay in training do business with a bullseye splashed on their every appearance. "That’s it exactly," Sheppard said. "When you get beat, something terrible must have happened. ‘Jeez, what happened to Forever Together?!’ That’s why people come out in the afternoon to see them run. They’re not machines, and neither are the riders." So, it's on to California with the defending BCF&MT champ. The conservative Sheppard was asked for a tout. "I think she’s as good as she’s ever been." I'll take that as a yes.