09/08/2016 3:40PM

Hovdey: Sheppard shrugs off rare Spa drought


Okay, so Jonathan Sheppard didn’t win a race at Saratoga this summer. Big deal. His total was exactly one fewer than such household names as Nick Zito, Dale Romans, Michael Matz, Tony Dutrow, and Mark Hennig, and they’ll all live to fight another day.

Then again, Sheppard’s Saratoga blank made for one of those “Man Bites Dog” headlines. Halley’s Comet comes around more often. The last time Sheppard – who has been in the Hall of Fame since 1990 – went winless during Saratoga was in 1968.

“I joked that I was getting more attention for not winning a race than I ever had for winning one,” Sheppard said this week from his Pennsylvania training farm. “Complete strangers were yelling, ‘Go get ’em, Shep. You can do it! Two more shots.’ That was very nice. I almost felt like I let people down.

“But that was what was meant to be, I guess,” Sheppard said. “It was a bit stressful, but stress isn’t always necessarily bad. If you want to be successful, you have to be in stressful situations, and I accept that.”

Sheppard is that rare professional who has mastered two worlds. The native of Hertfordshire, England, is far and away the leading U.S. trainer of steeplechase horses, with more than 1,000 victories to his credit. Eight of his jumpers have become U.S. steeplechase champions.

As a trainer of Thoroughbreds on the flat, Sheppard has had the Eclipse Award champions Informed Decision and Forever Together, as well as such major stakes winners as Storm Cat, With Anticipation, Ratings, Trevita, and Just as Well. He has also won the Turf Cup at Kentucky Downs three times – with Cloudy’s Knight and twice with Rochester – and Sheppard will be present and accounted for at the all-grass meet on Saturday in an attempt to win the marquee race again.

The Kentucky Turf Cup carries a purse of $600,000 generated by the Instant Racing-style betting machines that offer what is generically referred to as “historical racing,” with game results based on a library of past races. With its brief live meet, Kentucky Downs has been able to offer a raft of large purses, including $140,000 allowance races and $130,000 maiden events on Saturday’s 10-race program.

Not surprisingly, the Kentucky Downs fields are large, although heavily favored Da Big Hoss might have scared a few away from the Turf Cup. Da Big Hoss has won four of his last five, including the Belmont Gold Cup and the American St. Leger in his last pair.

Sheppard will try to upset the Turf Cup with Rum Tum Tugger, who is owned by a partnership that includes Jim and Sally Hill of Seattle Slew fame. Brian Hernandez has the mount. The rest of the opposition going the 1 1/2 miles includes Stars and Stripes winner Greengrassofyoming and the Southern California invaders Seve’s Road and Power Foot.

Getting there can be half the battle. Kentucky Downs is located near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, an hour’s drive north from Nashville. The track offers a unique experience to owners and trainers accustomed to being pampered in oak-paneled director’s rooms and luxurious private suites.

“It’s kind of like a steeplechase meet in the country without the jumps,” Sheppard said. “You’re basically out in a great big field. The only permanent structure is a building at around the quarter pole. We’ve been given four tickets to a luncheon in a VIP tent near the finish line, which I’m looking forward to.”

The 10-furlong course is unique among U.S. tracks. Watching the races from Kentucky Downs is a rare treat on the order of early-morning telecasts from the British Isles.

“The track is undulating,” Sheppard said, “with a clubhouse turn sort of olive-shaped, much tighter than the last turn, where you run downhill a little bit. Then you have a slight incline coming up the stretch.

“In the backstretch, when you come around the turn, instead of the rail being straight, about halfway down it angles in a little bit. You either take the straight line, which is the shortest route, but then someone may go rushing up on your inside and push you out when the rail comes back to you.

“So, it takes a bit of knowing, and some of the older, more careful riders probably aren’t so well suited to going around there. You need someone a little bit brave, a little bit aggressive.”

Besides being big with T.S. Eliot fans, Rum Tum Tugger has won five of his 29 starts, with another dozen placings. He had two chances to extend Sheppard’s Saratoga streak this summer but could do no better than third in an allowance event. The 7-year-old son of Afleet Alex scored his only win this season in a $50,000 flat event named for favorite son Secretariat at Virginia’s Great Meadow steeplechase meet last June.

“His third at Saratoga was in against a very competitive field, and I thought he ran well,” Sheppard said. “In the John’s Call, he didn’t run well at all, and I suspect he was just outclassed.

“To be honest, he may be in the same situation again on Saturday,” Sheppard said. “But we’re hoping he gives a good account of himself. And we’re looking forward to a fun weekend.”