01/14/2010 12:00AM

Training the way nature intended

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Jonathan Sheppard, in front of a converted dairy barn on his Pennsylvania farm, uses a field to give his horses speed work.

WEST GROVE, Pa. - It was cold on an early January day in rural southeastern Pennsylvania. But not that cold. Time-and-temp signs along US Highway 1 heading west from Philadelphia read 37 degrees. Jonathan Sheppard, guiding two visitors around the property where he trains, foals, raises, and breaks racehorses, steered a comfortably worn farm truck off a paved lane and set out across wintry turf. Not many yards into a field, a snow and ice covered creek blocked his path.

"I wonder if we can make it," Sheppard mused. "Let's give it a try." And with that, he threw the truck into gear and made for the creek's far bank. The ice broke into five-inch-thick chunks as soon as it bore the truck's load, and now the wheels were churning in winter mud. Unable to gain traction, Sheppard backed up onto the creek bank, made another run, and this time, with minor whining protest, the truck scrambled up into another field.

Sheppard drove for a moment to the base of a hill - no small rise, this hill - and shifted into park.

"This is the field where we do fast work," he said. "No horses get turned out in here. It's only used for working. This is where Cloudy did most of his work."

The truck idled on a 10-foot-wide strip of darker-colored turf snaking alongside the hill in the field bordered by the creek. Beyond the field was simple countryside - bare tree lines atop crowns of other hills, thicker woods, fenced pasture.

Before Sheppard began driving up the hill, tracing the route that the horses run, it hit you: This is the nerve center of a legendary trainer's operation, this innocuous winter field among other similar fields. This is the heart of his craft.

There are no furlong markers, no bustle of horse traffic, no tractors, and certainly no official clocker. At most, six horses will run over the figure-8-shaped path at one time, far removed from the racetrack life of the typical modern racehorse. And the master of this field, Jonathan Sheppard, is doing things that no horseman has done before.

When Forever Together won the 2008 Eclipse in the female turf division, it made Sheppard just the second person - Sydney Watters was the other - to train champions on the flat and over jumps. Now, Sheppard is about to repeat that feat with two horses in the same season: Informed Decision is expected to be named champion female sprinter of 2009, Mixed Up the champion steeplechase horse. That's uncharted territory.

"I don't think Jonathan's operation is comparable to anything anywhere," said trainer Graham Motion, who is based about 17 miles south of Sheppard's farm, at the Fair Hill training center. Motion worked on the farm with Sheppard from 1985 to 1990. "His system, the way he trains on the farm, it's very different than what you would see anywhere."

Sheppard's operation is split between jumpers and flat-racers, centered in Pennsylvania with a handful of racetrack stalls at Delaware Park, Gulfstream Park, Saratoga, and Keeneland. His runners earned almost $5.5 million in 2009, 13th-highest among North American trainers. Sheppard won four Grade 1 flat races and three Grade 1 steeplechases in 2009 and 16 graded stakes for flat and steeplechase combined. Besides the two Eclipse favorites, his stable included Forever Together, who won the Grade 1 Diana and was third in the BC Filly and Mare Turf, and Just as Well, who placed first via a disqualification (and still under appeal) in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer. And "Cloudy," the horse Sheppard referenced in the fast-work field, is Cloudy's Knight, who came into Sheppard's care in April and returned from more than a year away from the races in September to win the Kentucky Cup Turf, a Grade 3 over 12 furlongs. Cloudy's Knight made five 2009 starts, winning four of them and missing by a nose in the Breeders' Cup Marathon. The gelding turned 10 on Jan. 1.

Sheppard, 69, has performed this trick for decades. He made his mark as the country's preeminent steeplechase trainer the last 30 years of the previous millennium. When he entered the Hall of Fame in 1990, it was on the strength of his jumpers. The 1 1/2-mile comeback win by Cloudy's Knight? Sheppard has won plenty of two-mile jump races with long-layoff types.

Back in the field, Sheppard's truck tracked the work-path that his horses take. The horses begin uphill, traveling north near a fence line, not the steepest part of the rise, but still demanding. At the top, a left turn takes them west on a significant downhill stretch along another fence line. When the horses run down the hill, putting on the brakes while still traveling at a decent clip, it strengthens different leg muscles. At the end of the descent, another left turn circles them around and up the incline again, heading east. At the top, they take a right turn, then downhill toward the icy creek and another right turn at the bottom where the field is unfenced, bounded by trees and scrub.

Barbara D. Livingston

15px;">Sheppard still trains jumpers, including likely 2009 champion Mixed Up (left) and Three Carat.

"Usually everyone gets around the turn all right," Sheppard said. "Once in awhile, someone will end up in the woods."

Finally, the path loops back to face north-northeast and into the steepest slope of the hill. Here is where strength and stamina are demanded and where speed is requested by riders. The work starts at a canter, the pace gradually picking up. The horses, working four or six at a time, will run single file until reaching the base of the hill. Then they fan out in pairs for the climb, surging to reach the peak. Two and one-half times around the path equals seven furlongs. A series of works up this hill equals total fitness.

Sheppard, a former steeplechase jockey, used to lead these works himself, astride one of the animals. Now, he retires to a stand of pine trees the next hill to the east, about a hundred yards from the work field's fence. Stop-watch in hand, Sheppard can clock a five-furlong-or-so stretch from a crude marker to a tree.

Informed Decision did much of her work at racetracks last year. Sheppard did not want to sap her speed with too many stamina drills up the hill. But the filly has spent plenty of time in the work field and is not the first fast main-track horse with speed to exercise there. In 1985, a 2-year-old colt named Storm Cat had one of his last major drills in the field before finishing second by a nose in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Daily Racing Form called, wanting the details of the work. Sheppard wasn't available, and one of his assistants tried to help.

"They wanted to know, 'How far did he work?' " Sheppard said. "And she said, 'Well, there's not an exact distance; we don't have any poles out there.' And they wanted to know, 'How fast did he work?' And she had to tell them we didn't really time the works that way. Anyway, it came out in the article, [she] said she has no idea how far or how fast Storm Cat worked."

Sheppard laughed heartily at this oft-told tale.

Born in 1940 in the English village of Ashwell, Sheppard gave up a job in his family's London stock trading company to train horses in America. He owns the 65-acre farm known as Ashwell Stables and rents a 300-acre parcel with the fast-work field, a main barn, and several paddocks.

North of the farm is Sheppard's original fast-work field, where King Ranch cattle were fattened for market over the summer. In the spring and fall, Sheppard sent his horses there to exercise.

"It was a wonderful, wide-open field, and when I first started training, I kind of devised a course for work," Sheppard said. "For the first 15 or 20 years I trained, all the best horses did their work there, and the only time we used this field we use now was in the middle of the summer. Unfortunately, King Ranch stopped sending cattle up there, and the land was sold and divided, and we couldn't use it anymore. I don't think it's coincidence that for 18 straight years I was the leading jumping trainer, and pretty much the first year I had to switch fields, I wasn't anymore. It took me quite awhile to figure out how to readjust the work."

The farm truck pulled up at Sheppard's main barn, an old dairy barn converted for horse use. Bob Bailey, Sheppard's most senior employee at 39 years, was headed off to a doctor's appointment while in an adjacent paddock, four horses were headed back inside. One was bay, three were gray, and two of the grays were Forever Together and Informed Decision - one champion and another champion-to-be, happily turned out together.

Winter is no slack time in the Sheppard operation. The two gray fillies had recently begun to be ridden again, and they were turned out to spend time in the field before a rider is put up. Turning horses out is another practice that sets Sheppard apart. Only a few racetracks have a place where horses can graze, much less run free. Even if it were an option, turning out two champion-level animals together would raise some eyebrows.

"Turning out those fillies in a field together, turning out a lot of the racehorses in a field together, it's certainly not duplicated but has had tremendous results," Motion said. "I have pictures of Flatterer" - a famed, champion steeplechaser - "galloping in the field together with Storm Cat. You just wouldn't see that."

During Sheppard's early years in the mid-1960s, it was up to him and an assistant, Jimmy Wyatt, to exercise and care for 12 horses. (Timmy Wyatt, son of Jimmy, now rides for Sheppard.)

"Instead of walking them and walking them to cool them out, I thought, why not give them a couple turns in the barn, and then put them out in the paddock to finish cooling out," Sheppard said. "After that, it made sense to put them out first, before we rode them, so they'd be loosened up."

Storm Cat could have changed everything for Sheppard. Two years after Storm Cat nearly won the Breeders' Cup, the colt's owner, William T. Young's Overbrook Farm, was ready to expand. Overbrook wanted three trainers, on the West Coast, the Midwest, and the East. Sheppard was offered the New York job.

"To have to give up all of this?" Sheppard said. "I declined."

Led back into the barn - later than usual, to accommodate his visitors - Informed Decision and Forever Together were tacked up. Riders mounted, and the fillies headed into the arena next to the old barn, where they jogged for 10 minutes or so, doing figure-8's through a warren of stalls. Stall space is precious here, and the 100 or so horses on the farm tend to pop up everywhere. Sheppard once tried housing a horse in a hayloft, a plan soon scrapped by dripping waste.

The barn and its environs are no-frills, nothing like high-end Kentucky farms. Boards on the back side of the main barn have rotted at their base. An ancient-looking stone hutch attached haphazardly to the barn houses two goats. Inside the barn, the mash of hot oats was being brewed in a steel kettle.

"I used to be entirely hands-on," said Sheppard. "I used to mix the mash myself and dole out the feed to every single horse. But when we split the stable, I had to start delegating."

Barbara D. Livingston
It took Sheppard a year to turn Forever Together from a fussy eater with mental problems into a happy horse. She went on to become the champion turf female of 2008.

Jim Bergen was keeping an eye on Forever Together and Informed Decision as they jogged. Bergen, Sheppard's main training assistant on the farm, has worked here for 10 years. "Because we're in a farm-type setting, we can spend a long time with the horses," he said.

"I think the thing I've learned from Jonathan, is these horses are herd animals. They're meant to be outside as much as possibly can be, and it has a huge impact upon their mental capabilities."

Forever Together and Informed Decision are both the kind of fast 2-year-old sales purchases that regularly flame out under the rigors of racetrack life. Forever Together won her career debut over six furlongs on dirt and showed high early speed, but she proved especially challenging. She did not sweat. She tied up. She was a fussy eater. She got so bad about turning around while out on the racetrack that one morning, she and her rider were still glued to the same spot when the harrows came out to groom the track during the renovation break.

"If Jonathan had tried to turn the screws with her, none of this ever would have happened," Bergen said.

Instead of turning screws, Sheppard turned her out. It took time, more than a year, but when Sheppard was done, Forever Together had started acting naturally again. She also had been transformed from a go-to-the-lead dirt sprinter into a come-from-behind turf-route horse.

"I don't suspect I feed my horses much different than anyone else," Sheppard said. "They don't work much faster at the track. But we've done better than a lot of people. So, why? I have to think this is a lot to do with it, the closer-to-nature style. My vet tells me we have far less incidence of respiratory problems than any of the people he goes to, eventing people, racetrack people. Instead of giving it a break, letting nature take its course, people tend to call in the vet. In the long run, it hurts the horse."

There are more places for exercise on the farm: the road, for instance. Lamborntown Road used to be dirt, but even now, when paved, it serves as a jogging site. The truck rolled past a schoolhouse, the end-point for short jogs, and turned around at a small bridge, a destination for longer roadwork.

"Horses particularly that have tendon problems or soft-tissue injuries, jogging on the road sometimes really helps them," Sheppard said.

The farm has a five-furlong, undulating Fibar wood-chip training track with an uphill finish. The Fibar chips are actually a blend of processed wood fibers, not chips with bark. A horse can work five furlongs in 1:06 or 1:07 - a good place for maintenance breezes, Sheppard said, and a decent alternative when the fast-work field gets baked too hard in the summer. Near the training track is another barn, 32 stalls with a 14-foot-wide shed row used for more meaningful winter jogs than the ones given in the arena. Down the hill from the training track is a small field where Sheppard keeps animals he mainly owns himself, a group that will spend a great deal of time outside over the winter.

"My horses usually have the worst of it," he said, adding: "That's the field where Just as Well was turned out."

Another reclamation project, Just as Well was owned - as Forever Together and Informed Decision are - by George Strawbridge, Sheppard's client and friend of more than 40 years. Just as Well, 7, showed promise at the start of his career in 2006, but by late that year he was unsound and looked as if he might never race again. Strawbridge was looking to cull his herd and gave Just as Well to Sheppard. Sheppard, in turn, gave Just as Well to the Pennsylvania countryside, doing nothing but taking care of the horse for well over a year. Almost two years after he went to the sidelines, Just as Well made it back to the races, and in 2009, he turned into one of the better 10- to 12-furlong grass runners in North America.

Likewise, Cloudy's Knight had lost his form when he arrived in Pennsylvania last April 20. He had not won a race since October 2007. His campaign that season had been excellent, but Cloudy's Knight surely was too old for a renaissance. For five weeks at Ashwell, he did nothing but jog on the road. "His coat didn't look right, and he wasn't eating all that well," Sheppard said. Sheppard slowly mixed gallops in with the jogging and added some trips to the Fibar training track. On July 5, Cloudy had his first breeze in the field, and he worked 11 times before his comeback. For the second-to-last work, Sheppard vanned him the short distance to Delaware Park so Cloudy could get the official published that is required after such a long layoff. No prep race was required for Cloudy's 1 1/2-mile comeback.

"I almost find it easier to get a horse ready for a two-mile jumping race than coming back at six furlongs," Sheppard said.

Flatterer proved that. Now 31 and living a few miles away at the farm of Bill Pape, another longtime Sheppard friend and partner, Flatterer came back from a four-month winter layoff to finish second of 18 in the 1987 Champion Hurdle Stakes at Cheltenham in England.

"Jonathan himself gave him his last breeze," said Motion, who shipped to England with the horse. "The ground was too hard at Ashwell, so we breezed him at Garden State Park on the way to the airport."

Cloudy's Knight, faced with a challenge less stern, won his first race back, and in 2010 Sheppard hopes to make history with this horse.

"I've been told that records indicate no 10-year-old has ever won a Grade 1 stakes," Sheppard said. "We'd like to do that."

Informed Decision will be back this year. So will Just as Well, and Strawbridge is considering a 6-year-old campaign for Forever Together. Rainbow View, 2008 English 2-year-old champion, has also joined the stable. The year 2010 could turn out as well as 2009 did. But even if it doesn't, Sheppard's place in the world won't change much. He will still take his spot on high ground, watching the horses, two by two, charging up the hillside.

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* Jay Privman's Q&A with apprentice jockey Ben Creed

* Glenye Cain Oakford on the Keeneland January sale

* Steve Andersen on jockey Martin Garcia and his work for the Bob Baffert barn

* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes