Far from Kentucky's majestic stables, Jonathan Sheppard runs his operation out of a late 19th century dairy barn converted for racehorses. Inside the main barn, a cluster of thick leather and brass halters hang from an overhead hook. A chestnut filly gets a foot trimming with very little fuss. A veterinarian administers vaccinations. Off in a corner the mash of hot oats is brewing in a steel kettle. Horses poke their heads out of adjoining stalls, while a pair of crescent horned goats wander at will keeping both animals and humans company.
The morning after a dazzling snowfall two grays are led out to an adjacent field joining a mob of other fillies. The grays-- Forever Together and Informed Decision-- dig and pick at hidden shoots of grass, then suddenly wheel around and gallop off, white plumes steaming from their nostrils in the frosty air.
They are owner George Strawbridge’s champion girls. But here’s the thing: thoroughbred trainers just don’t turn out two champion-level animals together. The risk is far too great. But for Sheppard, it is yet another of his natural approaches that sets him apart from other top American trainers.
Forever Together captured the 2008 Eclipse Award in the female turf division. Informed Decision took home an Eclipse in 2009 as the champion female sprinter. Both had ongoing issues when Strawbridge purchased them as 2-year olds. Once in Sheppard’s hands, the fillies were coddled and controlled. Rather than force them, the trainer and his crew worked around their problems and eventually figured things out. The payoff is a pair of top racehorses that excel at six furlongs and 12 furlongs.
At Sheppard’s training facility outside West Grove, Pa. the horses enjoy a life far removed from the bustle of American racetracks. And winter is not down time. After a break following their early November Breeders’ Cup races, the two grays are being ridden again in mid- January as Sheppard prepares them for their 2010 campaigns. Following their time in the field, five-year old Informed Decision and six-year old Forever Together are tacked up. Their exercise riders climb aboard and direct the mares into an expansive old barn where they jog along a path of figure eights for about ten minutes then set off for the lower barn field for a moderate workout.
Sheppard developed his regimen starting in the 1960s when he and an assistant handled a dozen horses. To cool them out the horses were ridden round and round in that barn then put out in a nearby paddock. “Then I thought why not turn them out first before we rode them so they would be loosened up,” relates Sheppard, 69, a humble self-effacing man with an easy smile. “It’s almost like interval training. They fly around the field a bit and it tends to relax them. I believe you can train a horse better if the horse is relaxed.” So what’s up with the run of recent champions? “There is no rhyme or reason for it, except fate,” he replies. “As far as I can tell I’ve trained them the same way that I have for the past 43 years. A lot of (the success) is our closer-to-nature approach. My vet says he sees a lot less respiratory problems than other clients from the racetrack or the horses of eventing and dressage people. We don’t close up the barn when it gets really cold like they might do with show horses. We keep the air moving and we’ve found that quite beneficial to their respiratory system.”
In 1961 Sheppard left his family’s London stock trading company and headed to America where he eventually landed a job with Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer Burley Cocks. Six years later he embarked on a training career of his own at Ashwell Stables, named for his English village. The workouts are staged in spots known as the Apple Orchid, the lower barn field, the 100-acre field, the 5-furlong Fibar wood chip track, Bob’s Old Straw Ring, and the Forgiven Strip. Serious works take place in the 100-acre field. Typically six horses at a time train over a figure-eight shaped path, a world away from America’s racetracks.
There are no clocker’s stands or furlong markers in the open fields, so timing workouts is a bit tricky. Sheppard has devised an unofficial method. Stopwatch in hand under towering pine trees, the trainer times roughly a five furlong workout that is measured from a pole stuck in a fence line to a stand of broad-armed trees. The horses start at a canter up a demanding hill then come back down with the brakes on, but still moving at solid clip. They pick up the pace heading back up the steepest slope of the hill and down to the base that is bordered by stands of trees. The workouts foster strength and stamina, toughening up leg muscles. Two-and-a-half times around equates to seven furlongs.
Jim Bergen is the training assistant at the Chester County farm when Sheppard is tending to his racing barns in Camden, S. C, and south Florida in winter and Saratoga in the summer. On that chilly January morning two visitors pile into Berger’s SUV and head out into the lower barn field. The vehicle rumbles across the snow-packed field climbing to a high point, then we circle to a lower spot to watch the horses work. Informed Decision appears first and then Forever Together arrives. Wearing a dark fleece beanie and sunglasses, Bergen eyes their fluid and graceful strides. “We bring horses off the track to the farm and turn them out,” related Berger, a former financial adviser who grew up outside Saratoga, N. Y. “They get to be horses. It’s a pretty distinctive part of Jonathan’s training. Our training facility is essentially like Europeans. The horses go up and down bridle paths through the woods, plus we have so many venues here where we can train. It keeps the horses fresh, especially the fillies. They can be trickier to train. It’s been a huge part of the success of Forever Together and we’re hoping Rainbow View will respond as well this year.”
With Bridgette McFadden in the irons, Forever Together canters through the snow looping around the hilly 3/8-mile course. “Turning them out relaxes them and it’s almost like playtime for them and as an exercise rider I feel they’re easier to handle afterwards,” McFadden says. “I rode Forever Together before she had won a race and believe me, she was a handful. But Jonathan and Jim kept working with her. We all work as a team. Everyone has a role. I like that they listen to the rider’s evaluation and work it to a specific training program for that horse.”
Back at the main barn Bob Bailey is attending to chores. He’s been a fixture at Ashwell for the past 39 years. Bailey stops to point out stall 15, the home of Storm Cat in the early 1980s. He talks about the precocious 2-year old colt that lost the 1984 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by a nose and later became one of the top commercial stallions in the world. “I liked Storm Cat from the get-go, nice looking, a good mover, “ recalled Bailey, who lives in Kennett Square. “When he got here he would play and roughhouse with other horses. Most of them love that and training over all our different courses. Keeps them fresh mentally and makes them happy. As for me, I’ve got no plans to retire. The horses keep me young.”
Last November Sheppard enjoyed a day most trainers can only dream about. He arrived at Santa Anita Park with a trio of horses for the 2009 Breeder’s Cup. Four-year old Informed Decision put Sheppard in the winner circle with a thoroughly dominating performance in the $2 million Breeder’s Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. One race later Forever Together found no pace to run at, and she took third in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf.
Still, Sheppard’s most impressive training feat occurred with Cloudy’s Knight in the first race on the 2009 Breeders’ Cup card. The $500,000 Marathon was just the third race of the season (two wins earlier last fall) for the 9-year old gelding. He was returning after missing a year with a serious hind leg tendon injury. On the final turn Cloudy’s Knight exploded with a huge move, going three-wide to take the lead before being nosed out at the wire in the 1 ¾-mile Marathon. Thoroughbreds at that advanced age rarely return in such top form.
Last April Chicago-based owners Shirley and Jerrold Schwartz had hopes of resurrecting the 2007 Canadian champion male turf runner. They turned to Sheppard. For five weeks the horse was limited to short jogs on Lamborntown Road down to a schoolhouse.
Over the years Sheppard learned that horses with soft tissue injuries often tended to mend when jogging on the road. “The owners felt he would benefit with our type of program, something you can’t do at the racetrack,” relates Sheppard. “We’ve brought older jumpers back from bowed tendons after 18 months off. We tried to rekindle Cloudy’s outlook on life. Regain that youthful feeling. How he acted, how he ate, things changed pretty quickly. We didn’t push him. Let him work behind horses and then go up and finish with them.” Later gallops were interspersed with Cloudy’s jogging along with visits to the farm’s five-furlong, undulating Fibar wood-chip training track.
In early July Sheppard sent Cloudy out for his first breeze at the farm. Eleven more works followed before the horse hit the racetrack. He showed no signs of rust in winning the $150,000, Grade 3 Kentucky Cup Turf in September. Cloudy put an exclamation point on the season with decisive wins at 12 furlongs in the Valedictory Stakes in Canada and the W. L. McKnight Handicap in Florida in December, earning $426,759 in 2009.
In the week leading up to the Florida race Cloudy was at the farm during the late December monster snowstorm. “He looked like he belonged in that old Marlboro commercial galloping through 20-inch snow,” Bergen says with a smile. “You thought you were watching a 2-year old out there bucking, playing, rolling in the snow. From when he first showed up, it was a major resurgence.”
While many racing people were amazed at Cloudy’s success, it’s not such a big deal in the trainer’s eyes. “I might have a harder time bringing one back to run six furlongs,” Sheppard relates. “I don't train him any differently from a horse that is three or four. I’ve been told that no 10-year old horse has ever won a Grade-1 stakes. We would like to accomplish that.”
Another reclamation project is Just as Well. Breeder and owner George Strawbridge, a client and friend of Sheppard for 43 years, gave Just as Well to the trainer when his future as a racehorse was not looking too bright. The six-year old A. P. Indy horse spent over a year roaming the thick woods and fenced pastures at Ashwell. Nearly two years from his last start, Just As Well reemerged as one of America’s leading 10-to-12 furlong turf runners in 2009. He finished a respectable fifth in the Japan Cup in Tokyo last fall.
Rainbow View took home the Cartier Award as the top two-year old filly in European horseracing in 2008. She joins Sheppard’s stable in 2010. A half-sister to Just as Well, Rainbow View previously competed in England but Strawbridge made the switch so he can attend more of her races.
Toss in Fantasia, another relocated English classic contender and Mixed Up, the champion steeplechase horse of 2009, as well as a couple of promising three-year olds and Sheppard’s racing operation is once again brimming with talent.
“In some ways they’re very much like children,” Sheppard observes. “Some just blossom right away, others you need to coax along. The key is getting them to relax. Be patient, be kind, and trust in what the horse is trying to say.”