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.
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