12/14/2011 3:59PM

Hovdey: Ever So Lucky could put Sheppard on Kentucky Derby trail

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Reed Palmer Photography/Churchill Downs
Ever So Lucky, with Julien Leparoux up, puts on a show winning his racing debut.

The date was 11-11-11, and the blogs were abuzz in the wake of Ever So Lucky’s maiden voyage at Churchill Downs [Watch Replay]. Why not? A $600,000 sale-topper last May, sired by Uncle Mo’s papa Indian Charlie and trained by a Hall of Famer, the colt made short work of a 6 1/2-furlong event as if it were nothing more than a walk in the park. [UPDATE: Indian Charlie dies at age 16]

“Eye-catching,” “dazzling,” “all the rage” were just a few of the superlatives deployed, as Ever So Lucky shot to the front row of 2-year-olds being tabbed as 2012 Kentucky Derby colts to watch.

“It was hard to believe it was one of my horses they were talking about,” said Jonathan Sheppard, the Hall of Famer in question.

In Sheppard’s case this does not qualify as false modesty. He has a right to be amazed. Since 1973, when he trained the first of his 11 American steeplechase champions, the native of Hertfordshire, England, has been associated with Thoroughbreds of deep and abiding stamina. His truest flirtation with a colt who stirred legitimate Derby vibes came at the end of 1985 when he trained Storm Cat, winner of the Young America and narrowly beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Storm Cat was not able to answer the bell in the spring of ’86, but he did okay later on at stud, siring 168 stakes winners.

Ever So Lucky’s maiden win came in the immediate wake of an exciting if mildly confusing Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, also run at Churchill Downs, in which Union Rags, already anointed as the Next Big Thing, made far too many mistakes to overcome the determined front-runner, Hansen. Hansen had barely cooled out, however, before Derby shoppers were casting their nets elsewhere.

Then came the Kentucky Jockey Club of Nov. 26 [Watch Replay], in which the firmly favored Ever So Lucky finished second to Gemologist. It was a solid performance from both colts – Gemologist is a Tiznow out of a Mr. Prospector mare and trained by Todd Pletcher – and the winner had the benefit of 27 days since his previous start compared to Ever So Lucky’s 15. By all standards, Sheppard should have been crushed, his Derby dreams dashed. But for some reason, reached on Wednesday, bouncing back and forth between his Pennsylvania farm near West Grove and a string at Delaware Park, he sounded remarkably upbeat.

“We asked him an awfully big question in that race and he ran pretty darn well,” Sheppard insisted.

Earlier that morning, Sheppard had laid hands upon Every So Lucky at the farm, giving particular attention to the young shins that required some therapeutic attention in the wake of the Kentucky Jockey Club.

“I was very pleased the way he showed speed from the one hole that day,” Sheppard said. “He allowed a longshot horse to come past him on the backstretch, and he just settled in quietly behind, then moved up again when the winner came up to him.

“I thought he showed a lot of maturity,” Sheppard noted. “As far as that goes, he’s just a really nice horse to be around. Very simple, with a lot of poise, and really a very attractive colt with a lot of presence to him. Nothing striking, but the more you get to know him the more you like him.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Sheppard planned to put the tack on Ever So Lucky and give him a few turns around the barn, something to get the mental juices flowing in anticipation of the more serious preparation to come after the first of the year.

“He was going to get a break now anyway, whether we ran in that last race or not,” Sheppard said. “The thinking was that we wanted to get a two-turn race into him before Christmas if we could, so we didn’t have to worry about that later.”

The idea that the trainer might have a contender for the Kentucky Derby is statistically improbable, given the fact that Sheppard, 71, has never run a horse in the race before. As far as that goes, if history were fair, he would be waiting in line behind the likes of Bill Mott, Richard Mandella, Shug McGaughey, Ron McAnally and Allen Jerkens for their turn in the Derby sun.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. In recent years, the Derby has descended with relatively little warning upon the shoulders of first-time winners John Servis, Michael Matz, Neil Drysdale, Rick Dutrow, Barclay Tagg, John Shirreffs, Chip Woolley, and Graham Motion. The only rule about training a horse to win the Kentucky is that there are no hard and fast rules – even the one about preferring a candidate to have two-turn experience as a 2-year-old.

“I guess it’s the idea of exposing them to the distance, and some young horses are a little bit confused, because they’re so used to breaking out of a chute, going around the turn to the wire and then stopping,” Sheppard said. “But in the end they can either run or they can’t, whether it’s around one turn, two turns or three turns.”

To Sheppard, the Derby challenge is more about the timing of the race in relation to the development of most Thoroughbreds.

“A case can be made that it’s too early in the year for a horse to go a mile and a quarter, especially a horse who has a lot of speed like this one does,” he said, referring to Ever So Lucky. “The odd horse who happens to be bred to be a stayer and trains like a stayer and has a lot of natural stamina, he would be fine. But I think most people try to make their horses fit a program they’re not cut out for.

“So I’m not going to do anything stupid to get there,” Sheppard added. ”But if it happens, that would be very nice indeed.”