01/08/2014 12:51PM

2013 Eclipse Awards: Italian Wedding

photo by: Barbara D. Livingston

He’s the kid brother, the underdog, the scrappy terrier on a farm full of long-legged retrievers. He’s also an Eclipse Award finalist.

Italian Wedding, owned, trained, and bred by Jonathan Sheppard, flew into the championship picture thanks to a career year. The now 9-year-old Italian Wedding didn’t get started until Saratoga and finished with a win, a second, and 2 thirds in 5 starts – all Grade 1 stakes.

The win came in the $150,000 New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga and at the expense of big names Divine Fortune, Demonstrative, and Mr. Hot Stuff among others. Sheppard started four horses in that race and in a preview conversation got around to talking about Italian Wedding after the others. The hard-trying, one-length win didn’t necessarily surprise the trainer but . . .

“I could see him running a nice, honest, little race and getting a piece of it,” Sheppard said afterward. “Frankly, I didn’t expect to see him win, but that’s why we come over here in the afternoon.”

Nothing if not a fighter, Italian Wedding was part of a heavily favored three-horse entry with Divine Fortune and Martini Brother that day but might have been 5-1 by himself. A chestnut son of Alphabet Soup, Italian Wedding had won a novice stakes at Saratoga in 2011, but flopped in two Grade 1 tries that fall and made just one start in 2012. Sheppard blamed “lots of little things” for the long layoff but also paid credit to the break.

“Maybe in a roundabout way that helped him mature and grow into himself and get better,” he said. “It’s hard to say, but I don’t think it hurts a horse to have a little time.”

Italian Wedding rated in the middle of the nine-horse field and rolled toward the front on the final turn. He collared a tiring Mr. Hot Stuff at the top of the stretch, then turned aside a late bid from All Together. Jockey Bernie Dalton, aboard for all five starts on the year, was confident throughout.

“Going to the start, he just felt so sharp today, I had a lot of confidence in him, traveled, jumped great when I needed him, chipped in when I didn’t,” Dalton said. “I went past [Mr. Hot Stuff] at the top of the lane because the longer that horse travels without someone looking him in the eye, the better he’s going to go. I had him cooked, pinged the last, could hear the boys coming to me, so could he and he just picked up, in the end, in the last 10, 12 strides, he won a shade easy, like, ‘Okay. Okay. No problem.’ ”

Off the Turf Writers score, Italian Wedding finished third behind fellow finalist Gustavian in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park and then a dull eighth in Divine Fortune’s powerful score in the Grade 1 Grand National at Far Hills in October. Italian Wedding rebounded with a solid third in the season-ending Colonial Cup, the final Grade 1 of the season. He earned $133,000 on the year to more than double his career bankroll to $233,504.

A rare Florida-bred for his owner/breeder, Italian Wedding came to be because Sheppard bought an unraced half-sister to steeplechase great Victorian Hill in the early 1990s. Named Gemini’s Gem, she won on the flat and over jumps and joined Sheppard’s broodmare band. Her daughter Effervescent also won races of both types and has produced three stakes horses – Warm Glow (a Keeneland allowance winner who placed in a turf stakes at Delaware Park last year) and steeplechasers Italian Wedding and Cubist.