12/14/2016 2:56PM

Sheppard rebuilds with aid of new clients

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Barbara Weidl/Equi-Photo
Downhill Racer, owned by Rod and Alice Moorhead and trained by Jonathan Sheppard, is 2 for 2, including last weekend's Pennsylvania Nursery.

This has not been the easiest year for the legendary horseman Jonathan Sheppard, who through Tuesday had won 38 races, his lowest total since the mid-1970s. But the Hall of Fame trainer is ending 2016 on a nice streak, and the seeds have been planted for a better campaign in 2017.

Sheppard, 76, is the all-time leading steeplechase trainer in North America. He also developed the Eclipse Award-winning flat runners Forever Together, the champion filly or mare turf runner of 2008, and Informed Decision, the following year’s top filly or mare sprinter. Sheppard, a winner of more than 3,200 races, has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1990.

But Sheppard is no longer training for the Augustin Stable of George Strawbridge Jr., his most important owner over the past 45 seasons, and his 47-year streak of having at least one winner at Saratoga came to an end this past summer.

Fortunately, Sheppard’s relatively new relationship with owners Rodman and Alice Moorhead III has begun to pay dividends, and the trio has won three races together in the last several weeks, including a pair of $100,000 stakes.

“I’ve been trying to hold things together, but I don’t quite have the stock I used to,” Sheppard said. “The Moorheads, I would like to say, came along at a very good time for me, when I was going through a down spell with some of my better clients. They have been a big part of my rebuilding.”

Sheppard primarily trains off his farm in the beautiful countryside near Unionville, Pa. Rodman Moorhead, a retired executive with the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, and his wife own a neighboring property where Sheppard rents land. Although the Moorheads have dabbled in racing before, they only became seriously involved in the past few years after Sheppard purchased a few mares on their behalf.

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“We’ve known each other for years, but not very closely,” Sheppard said. “They’d love to come down to my place and look at the mares, and they decided to get a few themselves.”

Sheppard purchased the retired runner Encore Saritta for $30,000. A modest racehorse, her first two runners have won for the Moorheads. Button My Button didn’t race at 2 but is 2 for 4 since beginning her career in July and is coming off a statebred allowance win at Penn National. Her younger brother, Downhill Racer, is 2 for 2 after overcoming a rough trip to win the Pennsylvania Nursery at Parx on Dec. 3.

The Moorheads’ most promising runner looks to be the filly Rose Tree, a nine-length maiden winner at Delaware Park in October. A daughter of Harlan’s Holiday, she came back to win the Blue Mountain Juvenile Fillies for Pennsylvania-breds by 3 3/4 lengths at Penn National the day before Thanksgiving.

Sheppard said he paid $250,000 for her dam, Amusing, a half-sister to the late champion sprinter Lost in the Fog.

According to Sheppard, the Moorheads’ three racers will now get a break on his farm before being put back in training in late January.

“I think Downhill Racer will likely stay with Pennsylvania-breds next year, but Rose Tree I believe may be good enough to face better,” Sheppard said. “We turned down a few hefty offers for her after she won her maiden, but Rod was game enough to stick with it.”

The Moorheads now own four mares, according to Sheppard. To keep the Moorheads occupied while their foals grew up, Sheppard sold them a steeplechaser he bred.

“When I bought the mares for them, I told Rod, ‘It’s going to be close to a year before they run, but I have a nice steeplechaser that I own, if you’d like to buy him,’ ” Sheppard said. “He thought it was a good idea, and All the Way Jose won three races and was named champion novice hurdler of 2014.”

One of Sheppard’s better runners this year has been Outsider Art, who has made 10 straight stakes starts against the likes of Catch a Glimpse, Time and Motion, and My Impression for her owners and breeders, Delmar and Martha Pettigrew. She is scheduled to conclude her 3-year-old season in the $75,000 Tropical Park Oaks at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 31.

“She’ll get one more try against her own age group,” Sheppard said. “Maybe we’ve been a bit too ambitious with her, but as a yearling, she couldn’t bring $5,000, and now she’s stakes-placed five times.”