08/05/2009 11:00PM

A gift horse that keeps on giving


DEL MAR, Calif. - Did you know that every time Jonathan Sheppard checks Just as Well's teeth he is looking a gift horse in the mouth?

I am so sorry I wrote that, and not only because it's a lame play on words and an offhanded insult to equine dentistry. It is because Just as Well deserves a little more respect than that, and he may get it in spades on Saturday when he submits his growing reputation for inspection in the 27th running of the Arlington Million against a field that includes Einstein, Gio Ponti, Presious Passion, and three dangerous Europeans.

As an institution, the Million has held up well, but that should be no surprise. Like mission-style furniture or gin, it is a simple, classic concept that was correct from the beginning, requiring no fussy tweaks or public relations gimmicks to sustain its significance. The Million has survived fire, geographic displacement, and even two dark years when its own racetrack was shuttered by political storms. And here it stands, the best grass race of 2009 so far.

Sheppard has his doubts as to whether his horse is good enough to do the job on Saturday. But then, as Just as Well's owner, he has no one to answer to but himself.

"Realistically he's going to have to move up a couple of notches, but I don't think he'll be disgraced," Sheppard said Thursday, shortly before sending Mixed Up postward to win the A.P. Smithwick over the jumps at Saratoga.

"Winning over the course and distance at Arlington is certainly a reason for us to be there. There's always a chance that can make a difference."

The book on the 6-year-old Just as Well was virtually closed three years ago after he lost his first four starts. Racing for his breeder, George Strawbridge, the colt was an unsound 3-year-old maiden with little hope of ever making anything of a sterling pedigree that read A.P. Indy out of a Nureyev mare. Strawbridge did receive some words of encouragement from Sheppard, but only in the loosest definition of the term.

"He said all he needed with two years off," Strawbridge said. "That's a fairly unique attitude. Jonathan just wants to give every horse every opportunity, and he swore to me that this horse had ability. I told him if that's how he felt, I'll give him to you."

So he did, and Just as Well was turned out at Sheppard's Pennsylvania farm.

"We'd had him at New Bolton and Cornell, and they'd found some mystery problems we treated, but there was no guarantee he would ever make it to the races," Sheppard said. "Still, I couldn't very well take a horse owned by George Strawbridge and turn him out in the back 40 with five or six other broken down steeplechase geldings, in the snow and the ice in winter for four months. It would have been hard to explain if he'd slipped on ice and broken a shoulder or something. But since I owned him myself, that's what I decided I'd do."

Just as Well became a horse again, living in a large field with only a turn-out shed for shelter. His luxuries included grain morning and afternoon and as much hay as he wanted to eat.

"Otherwise, they were out there basically surviving," Sheppard said. "And for some reason, living in cold weather like that helps these horses with ailments. But you never know. I just brought him in after I thought he'd had enough time. We started putting the tack back on him, and he kept doing fine."

On May 18, 2008 - one month shy of two years after his final race for Strawbridge - Just as Well reappeared under Sheppard's colors to win a maiden race at Delaware Park. Then he won again, followed by several more good turns in allowance company. This season, Sheppard raised his sights and pitched Just as Well in graded stakes, but there was nothing but near misses until his one-length victory in the Arlington Handicap last month.

"When he won that second race back, I called George right away," Sheppard recalled. "I told him I was rather embarrassed that his horse had won again. I didn't want him to hear it from someone else. You know how people are around the racetrack."

Ah, yes. The racetrack. Undoubtedly there were stories floated that Hall of Famer Sheppard had sandbagged one of his dearest friends and longtime owner, then hidden the colt away for the better part of a year before sneaking him back to the races for a righteous score (Just as Well was 6-5 breaking his maiden, 6-1 in his nonwinners other than).

"George said he was very happy for me," Sheppard said. "He said I was nice enough to take him, and that he could have ended up in a horses-in-training sale, sent to Charles Town, and ended up hamburger."

As further consolation, Just as Well's half-sister Rainbow View became 2-year-old filly champion in England in 2008, and their dam, No Matter What, is still producing for the Strawbridge band. In the meantime, the Strawbridge-Sheppard team has a pair of potential Breeders' Cup favorites on a roll, with Informed Decision running next in the Ballerina at Saratoga and champion Forever Together fresh from winning the Diana Handicap last weekend.

"In Forever Together's last breeze at the farm before she came up here, I told George that I used one of my own little maiden claimers as a lead horse in the work, to give her a target through the stretch," Sheppard said. "George said, 'Well, I don't feel too badly about that. After all, I did give you a graded stakes winner.'"