10/14/2009 11:00PM

Sheppard prepared on two fronts


There will be a brief pause this weekend in the frenzy leading up to next month's Breeders' Cup while the Thoroughbred precincts of Far Hills and Etobicoke are heard from.

The Pattison Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine, in suburban Toronto, has been known in the past as the Long Branch Championship, the Rothmans International, and the Canadian International Championship. The event is important enough that the winner is allowed to run in the Breeders' Cup Turf no matter what else he or she has accomplished (forgive me if I don't deploy the misleading and cornball "win-and-you're-in" slogan), but it is a rare animal these days who comes back three weeks after a tough 1 1/2-mile race to run in an even tougher 1 1/2-mile race.

Anyway, the two million Canadian dollars in the pot makes wading through customs worthwhile, especially at current rates of exchange. On Thursday, those two million Canadians could have been swapped for a strong 1.9 million in Yankee greenbacks.

Jonathan Sheppard hopes to bring home the majority of the purse with his trusty Just as Well, who was last seen at Woodbine playing the role of innocent bystander to a three-horse cruncher that resulted in the disqualification of victorious Marsh Side. Runner-up Just as Well was given the win, although a protest by Marsh Side's owner has yet to be heard by the Ontario Racing Commission. It's a long winter.

As both trainer and owner of Just as Well, Sheppard has a lot invested in the Canadian race. Half his heart, though, will be with his large string of jumpers contesting the full-blooded day of sport at Far Hills, in the New Jersey countryside. By the time the field for the Canadian International goes postward, at around 5:40 p.m. Eastern, Sheppard will know how he fared in the $250,000 Grand National Hurdle Stakes, the richest race of the season for the up-and-overs.

To summon a favorite tactic of Charlie Whittingham, Sheppard has the Grand National surrounded. He has five entered among the 14, although he says it is likely only four will start. That is some consolation for the opposition, which is led by morning line favorite Pierrot Lunaire, winner of the Iroquois Hurdle Stakes in Nashville last May. Sheppard, en route to an airport Thursday morning, was asked to run down his Grand National squad.

"Arcadius is a nice one, new on the scene," Sheppard began. "He was a $500,000 Keeneland fall sale purchase by Coolmore who went to Ballydoyle and didn't do well. They ended up using him as a lead horse, or work horse. A veterinarian who works for them took him, cut him and turned him out for a bit, then brought him back as a hurdle horse. He ran second, after which I was contacted. Before I'd made a decision he ran again and won. They raised the price, though only a little. But I said he was actually worth less than he was before, since it's nice to buy a horse who can at least win a maiden race."

Sheppard was chuckling at that last part, having been involved by now in just about every horse-trading transaction known to man. Arcadius, a 5-year-old son of Giant's Causeway, goes into the Grand National off a closing third in the Lonesome Glory at Belmont in late September.

"The American hurdles are a little stiffer and bigger than the Irish hurdles," Sheppard noted. "He's gone better and better as he's gotten more confidence in himself."

The 9-year-old Three Carat was second in the Grand National back in 2005, when it was called the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase and backed by real Breeders' Cup money. They lost interest, though, and cut the race loose, which seemed to confuse Three Carat when he ran in the 2007 Grand National and dumped rider Danielle Hodsdon early in the race.

"He was coming back from a long layoff that day, and was a little rusty," Sheppard said. "It wasn't any horrible crash and fall, but it did tell us that he might have been a bit apprehensive. He came back again this year from a layoff, so we schooled him a little bit more intensively this time. He's an extremely good jumper, and he made it around Monmouth fine in his comeback hurdle."

Sweet Shani, a 9-year-old mare from New Zealand, was second to McDynamo in the 2007 Grand National and third to Good Night Shirt in the 2008 Iroquois. Both of those champions are now retired. Sheppard describes Sweet Shan as "tough, game and stays forever, but just lacks that little bit of class to be really good."

The 6-year-old Sermon of Love, the longest of the Sheppard shots, won a maiden race on the flat at Saratoga this summer and finished second in the New York Turf Writers Handicap, while Mixed Up is William Pape's 10-year-old veteran with 11 jump wins and nearly $600,000 in jump earnings. Mixed Up will run if the course stays firm. Sermon of Love would step up if the ground goes soft.

"And if it's somewhere in between, with just a little bit of rain, I might end up running all five," Sheppard said.

Sheppard's two assistants from his Pennsylvania farm will handle the chores at Far Hills while he tends to Just as Well at Woodbine.

"I would like to be there, but I feel, with all due respect to the Canadians, it's a pretty big race," Sheppard said. "I wouldn't like to be the owner and trainer who didn't show up."