The most celebrated and recognizable figure in American steeplechasing will dissolve his stable, but continue to manage his six-horse string in Ireland for a winter campaign.
Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, the 26-time leading National Steeplechase Association conditioner who campaigned 15 Eclipse-award winners over hurdles and on the flat, announced his retirement today.
Speaking by phone from his Florida home, Sheppard said on Monday that the time had come to hang up his tack.
“I’m 80 years old, not quite as sharp as I was, and traveling has become difficult and unenjoyable.” In addition, the legendary horseman suffers from Lyme disease, which has taken its toll as well. Though Sheppard said he is feeling “pretty good” these days, the illness is “still lurking.”
Sheppard will continue to shuttle back and forth between Florida and his Ashwell Stable in West Grove, Pa., until “we close the door, which will be sooner rather than later.”
His Ashwell homebreds will be gradually dispersed, and it has yet to be determined who will train the horses — including Iranistan, Winston C, French Light, Baltimore Bucko, and Zoom Zoom Zoe — Sheppard manages for owners Ed Swyer, Irv Naylor, Rod Moorhead, and others.
There’s no disputing that Sheppard is an unequalled giant of thoroughbred racing having achieved staggering success both over jumps and on the flat in a career that spans some 60 years. His list of accomplishments is jaw-dropping. Besides being a trainer of champions, the native of Ashwell, Hertfordshire, England is the winningest conditioner in US jump racing history and one of only two trainers to earn championships with flat and jump horses. Considerer this short list of milestones:
- Won at least one race at Saratoga for 47 consecutive years, from 1969 to 2015.
- Captured the Breeders’ Cup Grand National four times, Colonial Cup 11 times, and the New York Turf Writers Cup 12 times.
- Amassed a record of 20,997 starters, who collectively posted 3,426 wins, 3,099 seconds, and 2,975 thirds. His total purse earnings: $88,679,925.
- Trained 15 Eclipse-Award champions: Athenian Idol (1973); Cafe Prince (1977-78): Martie’s Anger (1979); Flatterer (1983-86); Jimmy Lorenzo (1988); Highland Bud (1989); Forever Together (2008); Informed Decision (2009); Mixed Up (2009); Divine Fortune (2013); and Winston C (2019).
- Among his top flat horses were Forever Together, Informed Decision, and With Anticipation. He also trained Storm Cat, one of the most influential sires of all time. Sheppard cited Flatterer and Storm Cat as two of his personal favorites.
Last year, Sheppard dethroned Jack Fisher, whose powerhouse stable had taken the NSA training title for nine straight years. Sheppard recorded 20 wins (in addition to finishing in the money in 48 of 79 starts).
The shadow Sheppard casts over the sport is immeasurable, and he recently set out to conquer a new world by sending out a string of his top runners for a winter European campaign. His first runner, Baltimore Bucko, finished third last week. French Light is entered for a race on Thursday, and his star, Winston C, is tentatively scheduled to make his debut in Ireland on Jan. 23.
Sheppard, known for his hands-on, old-school horsemanship, watched video of Baltimore Bucko’s race last week, and was very pleased with his gutsy finish.
Come the Spring NSA season, don’t expect to see Sheppard at the races, predominantly because traveling has become such a chore.
Keri Brion, Sheppard’s assistant who is currently in Ireland tending to the team, reacted to her boss’s announcement:
“The last 11 years working for Jonathan has been an experience that I will forever be grateful for. I have learned his way of training of letting horses be horses and I am looking forward to continuing that. He has been an incredible mentor and although quite tough at times, has molded me into the horsewoman I am today. I have some of the fondest memories of my time under him at Ashwell. I was lucky enough to go to the Eclipse awards three times, with two winners and one runner-up, which I actually rode in races (All the Way Jose). I have had some amazing opportunities and experiences over the past 11 years, but what I am most proud of is our team coming together in 2020 to put in a bang-up season, capturing the leading trainer title and sending him out on top, as he deserves. He is the greatest of all time, a living legend.”
What will Sheppard miss most? Besides the daily interaction with the horses, the trainer said it will be the “sport” of steeplechasing itself.
“The word ‘sport’ is the biggest attraction,” he said. “It is a sport, unlike flat racing, which is a business. I love the comradery, the getting together, the social aspect. It’s not just for the money.
“It means a lot to me every spring to see the people you know after a long winter. We’re just one big happy, albeit competitive, family.”