08/23/2011 3:06PM

Saratoga: Sheppard has quartet for New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase Handicap

Barbara D. Livingston
Divine Fortune, winner of the A.P. Smithwick, will be one of four Jonathan Sheppard-trained horses in the New York Turf Writers.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Betting on trainer Jonathan Sheppard has been the best way to handicap the steeplechase races at Saratoga thus far this summer, considering the Hall of Fame horseman has won four of the six jump races decided during the opening month of the meet. The problem with using that system to handicap Thursday’s $100,000 New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase Handicap is that Sheppard is likely to have four of the nine starters in the field.

Sheppard’s quartet in the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers, carded at 2 3/8 miles, is led by Divine Fortune, winner of the Grade 2 A.P. Smithwick Memorial earlier in the session, and including defending champion Sermon of Love, who gave Sheppard his 13th New York Turf Writers win here a year ago. Sheppard also has Nationbuilder, who finished third in the Smithwick, and the 11-year old mare Sweet Shani in the Turf Writers.

“I was only going to run three of them since there is a stakes for the filly the following Thursday, but they’re telling me they don’t have sufficient entries for that race, so I will probably start her on Thursday, too,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard had originally considered skipping the New York Turf Writers with Divine Fortune, but said he is training well and has been weighted fairly enough to bring the Smithwick winner back in three weeks.

“I was delighted with his race in the Smithwick off the layoff, and he’s doing extremely well right now,” Sheppard said. “Last year, he finished fourth in this race after winning the Smithwick, but he had to pick up eight pounds a year ago and he’s only picking up two pounds this time.”

Sermon of Love will make his third appearance in the New York Turf Writers, having finished a distant second behind Spy in the Sky in 2009 before returning to post a one-length triumph a year ago. Sermon of Love has started just once this season, but did not complete the course when pulled up midway through the three-mile, Grade 1 Iroquois on May 14.

“That was a very peculiar day of racing, the course was sticky and tacky and speed favoring,” Sheppard said. “It was asking quite a lot of him to run that day coming off the layoff like that and I also took the blinkers off for that race. He’s training quite well right now, and I’ll put the blinkers back on him for this one.”

Sheppard said the New York Turf Writers has come up a very competitive race and that he’s particularly fearful of Dirar, an Irish-bred gelding who’ll be making his U.S. debut Thursday. Dirar has won 9 of 33 career starts, four of those victories over jumps, and comes into the race off a third-place finish in the Grade A Guinness Galway Hurdle Handicap in Ireland.

“The Irish horse is favorably handicapped and in my estimation the competition is tougher over there,” Sheppard said. “If he adapts, he’s going to be difficult to beat, and he is a small, handy looking horse who figures to be more suitable to this type of course with the tighter turns than most of the bigger European hurdlers might be.”

Spy in the Sky, the 2009 New York Turf Writers champion; Decoy Daddy, runner-up to Divine Fortune in the Smithwick; the Grade 1-placed Dynaski, Mabou, and Straight to It complete the field.