One of the greats of the US steeplechasing scene, Jonathan Sheppard, has died, aged 82 at his home in Pennsylvania.
For racing fans of a certain generation, Sheppard was a pioneer of international travel when bringing Flatterer over to run in the 1986 French Champion Hurdle, a precursor to a valiant second to See You Then in the third of that horse's Champion hat-tricks in 1987. At that juncture, the Breeders Cup didn't even exist, and international travel, excepting between Britain and Ireland, and the continent, was largely non-existent.
Flatterer's placed effort was the trigger to an effort to bring the US and UK markets closer together, brought about by the creation of the Sport of Kings Challenge, a set of six races - three on each side of the Pond - with handsome bonuses of up to $1m for winning a full set. Predictably, Sheppard was in the vanguard of the first US entries in the series, at Cheltenham, and Leopardstown.
Commonly known just as "Jonathan", the elder statesman of US racing, was born in Ashwell, Hertfordshire, between Letchworth and Royston, in 1940 to a horsey family which encouraged his participation in local Point-to-Points. His father Daniel was an official with the Jockey Club, then the power in the sport covering regulation, finance, fixtures, the lot. Rides under Rules were scarce and limited.
There was no inevitability about a son following his father into the sport. Three other siblings avoided the racing bug, but Jonathan opted to try his hand in the land of opportunity, not having the finance to bankroll a start up training operation in the UK. In the early sixties, he worked with other legend Burly Cocks for two seasons before returning briefly to the UK.
A lucky break was the making of his career with steeplechasers. In 1965, he met George Strawbridge Jnr, an accomplished and wealthy amateur rider, and heir to the Campbell Soup fortune. The two set about growing a stable not just of National Hunt horses, but Flat too. Strawbridge was leading owner some 23 times from 1974 onward, a domination only really matched by one J P McManus over here.
The Sheppard stable became both the go-to and the dominant force in the sport stateside. His 1,242 career wins over obstacles, winning over $25m, set records unlikely to be overtaken in our lifetimes, and he was Champion Trainer 26 times, the last just three years ago.
But whilst to most, Sheppard was considered an icon of the National Hunt world, his 2,184 victories on the Flat dwarfed his Jumping achievements, his horses winning some $60m+.
Like many good trainers of horses, Sheppard attracted the best human talent too. Those that worked with him have gone on to great success; just like the Duke and Reg Hollinshead, he was a nurturer of talent both equine and human. Graham Motion, who led up Flatterer in that epic Champion Hurdle adventure in '87, is now a highly successful Flat trainer in the States winning the Kentucky Derby in 2011 and Dubai World Cup 2 years later, whilst Janet Elliott became champion Jumps trainer in '91. More recently, Leslie Young and Keri Brion, who brought horses across to Ireland with a view to the Festival, have shown Sheppard's knowledge continued to flow even after his retirement.
The Jumps world is a sadder place without his diplomatic approach, hard work and understated expertise, and the Point-to-Point world can take pride that he launched from our fold.
Steeplechasing runs a tightrope between managing safety and a daredevil adrenalin rush of jumping big fences at speed; two opposite ends of a spectrum forever in conflict one with another.
In the UK, standardisation of fences, with the almost wholesale adoption of uniform fences, seems to be the norm. Other racing jurisdictions, perhaps under less threat from the likes of Animal Rising, still illustrate considerable variation in the composition and scale of the obstacles.
In France for example, the variety of obstacles in a cross country chase cover orthodox steeplechase fences, bullfinches, railed ditches, rails, and banks. Some even have water obstacles. For the best example of this, visit Craon in the Mayenne region of Western France. Craon's Grand Cross in early September is the highlight of a three day festival of flat, trotting and Jump racing that attracts around 15,000 spectators.
France is of course a country where jump racing is thriving, underwritten by a breeder class seeking to grow a market for top class chasers. And as we know very well, exporting them to compete under British ownership has been a trait of the past 20 years here in the British market.
Reverting to the style of obstacle, the town of Bad Harzburg in Germany enjoys a reputation for the deepest water crossing in international racing. the 20m wide river laps the riders' calves as the horses slow to a trot and wade across. yet in contrast to France, Bad Harzburg relies on a domestic population of just 15 chasers to populate its races. Without competitors from abroad, the race has a limited shelf life.
Timber plays a leading role in the US steeplechasing scene, where alongside portable hurdles, chasers compete over the sort of fencing you might find adorning Sussex; timber rails up to 4ft 8 in height. The mother of all timber races is the Maryland Hunt Cup, held at the end of April, serving as a copycat Point-to-Point of yesteryear, over 4 miles and 22 fences. Unique among the world's top flight races, it is solely open to amateur riders.
The race has a typically quaint Victorian heritage. Created as a contest between the Elkridge and Green Spring Hunts in 1894, the race set out to mark out the best hunter from the two packs, but was subsequently opened to other hunts in North America, and eventually any restriction was removed. And whereas only around 100 attended the first running, now many thousand enjoy the Spring scenery of the Worthington Valley, the race's modern permanent home. This is a race with a niche following that breeds an intense loyalty. With a $100,000 purse, it's no small prize either.
This is a race meeting like no other, insofar as the obstacles are uniquely Maryland, but also there are no supporting races! If you're in the loo for 8 minutes, you could miss the whole purpose of the afternoon.
Like much about steeplechasing, it's also gloriously politically incorrect. Even by US standards, the race was slow to admit women riders, only allowing them in the 70s'. The list of winning owners and riders reads like an old western from first winner John McHenry through Jervis Spencer Jnr, the billionaire Paul Mellon, five time winners D Michael Smethwick and Charles Fenwick Jnr, whose Ben Nevis used the Hunt Cup as a platform to win the Grand National at Aintree in 1980.
This is a race which lends itself to course & distance winners. Several have won it three times, notable among them Jay Trump (1963, '64, '66), another who used the success as a platform to Aintree glory in 1965. Since 2016, allowing for a pandemic-induced break in 2020, there have been just 4 winners, including three time winner Senior Senator, ridden by Eric Poretz, and Irish-bred Vintage Vinnie, winner in 2021 and the following year.
the 2023 winner, Withoutmoreado is a nine year old with virtually no previous steeplechase form, and certainly not under Rules. The 12l winner of an open maiden at Charm Park back in 2019, he didn't win again until breaking his timber maiden in the US at the Genesee Valley meet in autumn '21, since when the penny dropped, and he's rarely been out of the frame. In the specialist world of long distance timber racing, he's a firm favourite to hold on to the race in 2024.
Quirky races like these may be an anomaly, but you only have to see the crowd that flocks out to watch Cheltenham's cross country races close up to a fence to know they touch a part of the soul other races cannot reach. Their unique nature defines the sport more than any orthodox race - however valuable - can. They need to be nurtured and protected to salve the sport's heritage.
Put these three venues on your racing bucket list. You won't regret it.
Lucy Wadham is enjoying a purple patch with her jumpers presently, with three of her four runners since Friday finishing winners.
The stable has barely figured in this nascent summer Jumps season, with a mere 15 runners. But at Fontwell on Friday evening, Another Mystery under Nico de Boinville started a weekend treble in motion in the 2m5f handicap hurdle.
Wadham had teamed up with Tom Cannon the following evening at Uttoxeter for a 112/1 double when Presenting Belle held on by a diminishing 3/4l in a novices handicap chase, followed by For Gina in a mares handicap hurdle 30 minutes later.
The Wadham story began, like so many others, between the flags, when Lucy trained pointers for 10 years alongside a career as a BBC journalist. Her first Rules winner was in a novices hunters chase, appropriately enough, at Huntingdon 33 years ago.
Since then, her niche training operation has regularly clocked some 15-20 winners a year, albeit very few in the top flight. With a win and place ration ranging from 55-60%, her horses are well placed, and it's only quality that's holding back an escalation in her profile.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls showed that his expertise for the craft extends from the zenith of the sport at Cheltenham to its grass roots in hunter chasing and Point-to-Point when picking up the feature event at Stratford's hunters' evening on Friday.
But whilst he took the scalp of last year's winner Vaucelet in the feature Pertemps Network Stratford Foxhunter with Secret Investor, it was clear to see that daughter Olive's victory on Shantou Flyer in the Royal Equestrian Racing Club Ladies Open Championship final gave him still more pleasure.
Olive has been riding out of her skin this season, her second between the flags. 39 rides have resulted in 11 winners, of which Shantou Flyer has provided four, starting at Larkhill in late November before progressing through Chaddesley, and hunter chases at Exeter before Stratford. Always handy in this last race, she took up the running from the seventh, and never looked back. The 12l winning distance was a reflection of this horse's superior rating, 12lb ahead of the next best in the field of 7.
Trainer Sam Loxton, third in this race last year with Caid du Berlais, has enjoyed an impressive strike rate between the flags this season. One in three of his 36 pointing or hunter chase winners has passed the post first, a rate not even his mentor Nicholls can achieve.
In truth however, Nicholls' interest in the sport is largely because of Olive's success. The man who has conquered the heights of the sport's greatest races is very much at home in the amateur division of the sport, but owners and trainers need have little fear he is planning to dominate. This is a family affair.
Secret Investor, owned by Herefordshire - based Clive Hitchings - was a deserving winner of the Pertemps Network Stratford Foxhunter, but the rapidly diminishing 3l margin would have been reversed in another furlong. Runner-up Vaucelet, who lost a shoe in running, was hard - driven to make up ground from three out, and were it not for a messy leap at the last, the positions might have been reversed. It looks like 3m is my optimum trip, given his largely blemish - free season of 4 from 5 outings has rarely been over longer distances. Yet the sport is the winner for having a horse of this calibre within it; Secret Investor, rated 142, is the winner of 11 races and over £167,000 in prize money, toward which this £11,000 prize is yet a modest contribution.
Vaucelet will likely be back again; trainer David Christie enjoys this meeting and has met success here on several occasions, plus the homestay hospitality of Managing Director Ilona Barnett adds a considerable advantage!
Secret Investor and Vaucelet may well have to contend with a new challenger next year in Sine Nomine, winner of the pointtopoint.co.uk Champion Novices Hunters' Chase over the same 3m 3f distance. This gripping race saw plenty to excite the enthusiast. Three rounded the turn closely bunched, with Sine Nomine boxed in on the rail by a Jack Andrews on Brave Starlight, determined not to give race room. Once beyond the rail, Jack Dawson had the speed to take up an inner berth as Precious Bounty, with Sine Nomine to the inner, Brave Starlight to the outer, jumped the last in unison. The last two went on, before Dawson was able to conjure some extra speed to get him 2 1/2l clear in the final 100 yards.
Winning trainer Fiona Needham has recently stepped down as Clerk of Course for Catterick to devote more time to the family farm. The trip back up to North Yorkshire will have been all the sweeter for the anticipation of what is to come from this exciting novice.
Gina Andrews, crowned champion lady amateur rider during the course of the evening, showed just why she has won that accolade when getting up to win the Grace & Dotty Restricted Novices Hunters' event over 2m6f, to ensure no Hunters' evening was without an Andrews winner. In a white knuckle finish, favourite Captain Biggles and long - time leader Raleagh Flora, under Charlie Marshall, joined issue turning out of the bend, and met the last in unison. With a winning distance of just a head, it was only favourite backers who were glad of the result; a dead heat would have been as fair. Winning trainer Tom Ellis breaks records in the amateur level of the sport as frequently as Paul Nicholls in the professional game, this taking his seasonal tally into the mid seventies.
The Paul & Olive Nicholls team narrowly missed out on what could have been a double after Magic Saint went under by just 1 1/2l in the opening Jumping for Fun Hunters Chase over the minimum trip. leading off the bend, Magic Saint was in command, but Kaproyale under Zac Baker, took closer order. A blunder at the last gave the advantage back to the Nicholls contender, but Baker, having kept his seat, was able to conjure another run from Kaproyale to peg back the leader halfway up the run in and pull 1 1/2l ahead by the line. It was a 17th victory for winning trainer Fran Poste.
Jack Andrews, denied a winner in the Novice Championship, made sure of his place on the Winners' board for this annual Hunter chase jamboree in the closing Visit Irish Store Sales with ITM Point-to-Point Bumper. Some may argue a flat race has no place in the Point-to-Point circuit, but the influx of h=young horses gives the lie to this outdated argument. Racegoers were rewarded with a gripping race in which Nigel Padfield's Penniless ensured that was most certainly not the case with a 1/2l victory over Old Gold. The winning owner gets a £1,000 cheque to spend at any Irish sale coming up so chances are a Padfield horse will appear in the same race next year.
One truly unique race makes up this innovative and popular card, being the 2m 5f Hunter Chase handicap, underwritten by the White Swan Hotel. Two non-runners on account of the ground made this just a 5 runner field with a weight range from 12st 5 to 10st 5. Winner Sixteen Letters looks a horse to frustrate his trainer and rider Josh Newman. Plenty of ear movement approaching and after the last indicated he had more in the tank as Gina Andrews galvanised Peacock's Secret alongside, but Sixteen Letters decided to find more and the 2l winning margin is not a reflection of his superiority when he opts to show it.
The Grafton point-to-point at Edgcote on Sunday 14th May saw an excellent turnout of 61 runners in the seven races, the highest of the season in the South Midlands area and the highest anywhere nationwide since the first weekend of March, thanks to the excellent work of Clerk of the Course Graham Tawell, Estate Manager Hamish Gairdner, and their team.
Nine went to post for the feature race, the PPORA Novice Riders Championship Final, with £1,000 total prize money and £500 to the winner and, appropriately for a novice riders race, it was won by the youngest jockey in the field, 16-year-old Cian Murphy on Give Us A Swig. Always in the first three, the pair took the lead five out, jumped and travelled well and were never in danger as they scored by five lengths and five from Largy Mountain and Cobra De Mai, both of whom were doing their best work at the finish.
Give Us A Swig is trained at Soham, Cambridgeshire by Michelle Bentham – who used to have useful hunter chaser Jurado Express – and her partner Paul Birrane, who is feed man for leading flat trainer Charlie Appleby, and told me how they came by the horse. “We intended to give up training after Covid, but Cian’s mum Marie – who is assistant trainer to Charlie – asked us to find a couple of schoolmasters for him to ride, so we train him and Prairie Town (who was third in the preceding open) from our garden! We don’t have any facilities, so have to box them to Newmarket. We’ll go home and have a think about whether we give him one more race, but I’ll have to dig out my best bib and tucker for the awards at Stratford now!” Explaining his primarily white colours, with some yellow and blue, Paul said, “They’re for my team Leeds United, who’ll probably get relegated this season.”
“That’s my eighth ride, seventh completion (the exception being when Give Us A Swig ran out at Garthorpe when looking the winner) and third winner,” said a delighted Cian, who only turned 16 in January. My Dad Sean, who was a jump jockey in Ireland, rides him every day. It’s always been my dream to be a jump jockey and I’ve had an amazing season. I knew this race would be competitive and he battled on gamely.”
Norfolk-based David Kemp, who is enjoying a fantastic season, went home with a double, initiated by Clara Sorrento in the John White Funeral Directors Mixed Open. A small but quality field of five faced the starter here and jockey Rupert Stearn – on his first ride back since a crunching fall at Fakenham last month – made all on the twelve-year-old, who jumped exuberantly, led his rivals a merry dance and never looked likely to be beaten, eventually coming home eight lengths clear of Dundrum Wood, with Prairie Town 30 lengths third.
Winning owner Simon Stearn – father of the jockey – said, “We bought him from Gigginstown, for whom he had been trained by Noel Meade, and he had to have a year off after Covid with leg and back trouble. Rupert said we should send him to David, because his wife Imogen specializes in Bowen therapy for horses’ backs. We were going to go to Cheltenham, but we only run him if Rupert can ride and he had that terrible fall – he was concussed and cracked ribs, and only passed the doctor on Friday. That was magic – he always front runs and Rupert keeps saying he doesn’t realise how quickly he’s going. We’ll go to Stratford for the Champion Hunter Chase now.”
“I’m a little but rusty after three weeks off and three visits to Peter O’Sullevan House in Newmarket,” admitted the winning rider, who was paying a first visit to Edgcote, “But my ribs are fine now. Clara Sorrento is an armchair ride and probably the best horse I’ve ridden. When the others are galloping, we’re just cantering. We’re lucky to have him, David’s done brilliantly with him, and I just wish he was a bit younger!” It was a 123rd career success for the 38-year-old farmer, who confessed, “I’m well down the back nine, to use a golfing analogy for my riding career. I just ride our own horses and for the Turners now.”
David Kemp completed his double with the Dale Peters-ridden All The Ammunition, who followed up his Maiden victory at the last meeting here in the nine-runner Towcester Vets Restricted Race. Mid-division early, he made effortless progress on the final circuit to go second four out, before taking the lead a fence later and going on to score comfortably by seven lengths from the always-prominent Ultra Viers, with Bestfriend Barnaby two-and-a-quarter lengths further back.
It was a 15th winner of the season (from just 22 runners, with a further five placings) and David laughed, “It’s going ridiculously well! The horses are happy, I’ve learnt how to get them fit and it helps that Imogen is an equine therapist. She’s so good with horses that she can tell me where the issues are and so they all stay sound and well-balanced. Law of Gold (David’s first Cheltenham winner earlier this month) would be nothing without her, for example. We could have as many as four runners at Stratford.” As for All The Ammunition, “He’s a slow-maturing type, although his ability has always been obvious. He had jumping issues in the past, some of which might have been due to ulcers which we’ve used science supplements to treat, and while he made hard work of it here last time, he had a horrible journey. He performed much better today.”
“That was better than I expected,” smiled Dale afterwards. “David’s changed a few little things since his last run here when, even though he won, he wasn’t happy.” Dale, who also trains pointers, was moving on to 16 for the season, including two Hunter Chases and said, “We had a bug in the yard, but the horses have been running well since Easter. Breaking my Cheltenham duck (on Law Of Gold) was a big relief – it was good to get that off my back!”
Bradley Gibbs took centre stage once again at Cheltenham on Friday during HQ's season swansong for the Hunters' evening fixture. Premier Magic, successful in the St James' Place Cheltenham Foxhunter, returned to the scene of his greatest triumph for an assured 17l victory over Rebel Dawn Rising in the Ienos Grenadier Final.
The race turned into a match from 4 out with David Kemp's Rebel Dawn Rising, whose win in a Garthorpe qualifier for this £10,000 Final has been interspersed with BD and UR figures. In truth, Premier Magic always had the upper hand and had the race won before the last.
For good measure, Gibbs added to his score in the opening John Wyke aka Mr Guinness Memorial Hunters Chase over 2m with Fier Jaguen, last seen leading the field in the Aintree Foxhunter, where he unseated Gibbs at the seventh. Fier Jaguen came here with a mighty reputation on the back of wins at Chaddesley, Revesby Park and Ston Easton, but his jumping left much to be desired over these stiffer obstacles. Although blessed with a turn of foot, he looks something of a tricky ride.
David Kemp didn't head back to the east of England empty-handed however, as Law of Gold went one better than his second in this race 12 months previously to win the four miler. This attritional race always attracts a large field, but it needs to. Of the 12 starts, just 4 finished. Law of Gold is a model of consistency, with three victories from his last 7 runs, the other four efforts being runner-up. He sensibly avoided the Foxhunter here a month ago, and that decision was vindicated. He looks a likely candidate for the Stratford Foxhunter in 3 weeks' time.
Another with sound claims to Stratford is Quintin's Man, who stayed on resolutely to pass several others and win the Lycetts Insurance Brokers Intermediate Chase under Darren Andrews for John Heard. The John Corbett Cup, the season's highest accoldae for novices, is a potential target.
Champion Point-to-Point trainer Tom Ellis has carried all befor him this season, reaching a personal career best. Winning at Cheltenham however still means plenty, and Fairly Famous put him and rider Gina Andrews in the winner's enclosure with a ready 15l winner over locally-trained Marcle Ridge in the 3m2f Kdta Hunters Chase.
The shortest distance of the night occurred in the Barrie Wells Trust Box4kids Mares Hunters Chase, a relatively recent addition to this programme. There were three in a line approaching the second last. Tom Broughton on Miss Seagreen was first to go for his stick, and looked to have the worst of the tussle, but the 10 year old mare stuck to her task after the last to get uo in the final 75 yards to beat Sine Nomine and Singapore Saga in the best finish of the evening. Sine Nomine, brought down from Catterick by Fiona Needham, could be fairly adjudged to be an unlucky loser; there'll be other races for the game grey mare. The winner was trained by Lucy Smith, a welcome reversal of Marcle Ridge's defeat.
The evening concluded with another close contest in the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars open race over 2m4f. Paloma Blue looked to have the race in safe keeping two out, but had to rebuff a persistent late challenge from Fix It All, under J J Murphy-Knight, winner of two hunters' races at Ludlow. Josh Newman had somethig left in the tank, however, and ran on again to win by 3/4l with last year's winner Solomon Grey back in third.
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