Jonathan Sheppard. ©Tod Marks
By Tod Marks
Jonathan Sheppard, the most recognizable, celebrated, and honored figure in American steeplechasing, died on Aug. 27 in his Hollywood, Fla., home at age 82. The Hall of Fame trainer was the leading National Steeplechase Association conditioner 26 times and campaigned 15 Eclipse-award winners over hurdles and on the flat.
Sheppard, who officially retired in January 2021 after winning his final title, said at the time that both age and an advanced case of Lyme disease had taken its toll, prompting him to hang up his tack and disperse both his racing and breeding stock as well as his beloved Ashwell Stable in West Grove, Pa.
There’s no disputing that Sheppard is an unequaled giant of thoroughbred racing, having achieved staggering success both over jumps and on the flat in a career that spanned some 60 years. His list of accomplishments is jaw-dropping. Besides being a trainer of champions, the native of Ashwell, Hertfordshire, England was the winningest conditioner in U.S. jump racing history and one of only two trainers to earn championships with flat and jump horses. Consider 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.
In 2020, 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 cast over the sport is immeasurable, and in his final season he set out to conquer a new world by sending out a string of his top runners for a winter European campaign.
Sheppard was known for his hands-on, old-school horsemanship and gave generations of up-and-coming trainers a career boost, from Janet Elliot (also a Hall of Famer) and Graham Motion to Leslie Young and Keri Brion.
National Steeplechase Association Director of Racing Bill Gallo, who dedicated the 2020 NSA Yearbook to the retiring Sheppard, summarized The Master’s contribution to the sport succinctly:
“Over time, which has become a long time, Jonathan Sheppard not only remained the face of steeplechase racing in America, but the heart and soul of it. Furthermore, he crossed the boundaries of jump racing and flat racing so gracefully and successfully, that he brought awareness and credibility to our sport, which often idles in anonymity.”
Added NSA President Al Griffin: “No other person has impacted American Steeplechasing the way Jonathan Sheppard has, both as a horseman and a gentleman. He will be greatly missed by all.”
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