To put trainer Jonathan Sheppard's standing in American steeplechasing in perspective, he won his first championship in 1970 and his first-call jockey for 2013, Darren Nagle, was born in 1987.
No matter, the 72-year-old Sheppard begins another jump season Saturday in Aiken, S.C. The Hall of Famer will run four horses on the six-race card, which starts at 1 p.m. and will essentially be a sellout with full tailgate spaces circling the race course. Aiken has long been the first stop on the National Steeplechase Association circuit, and Sheppard has long played a role. Aiken is a sure sign of spring, as is Sheppard being there. Thursday, he was busy making travel plans to get to South Carolina from his Gulfstream Park base and thinking - a little - about the past.
"The sands are running through the hourglass, as they say," he said. "I always enjoy the coming of the season. Steeplechasing has a beginning and an end, which is nice. You get back to places you haven't been in a while and you see people you haven't seen for a while. If I can work out my travel I'll be at Aiken and I will definitely be at Camden (for the Carolina Cup) next week."
For him, his string looks thin at first glance. Divine Fortune, runner-up in three Grade 1 stakes last season, might be Sheppard's only threat in the major spring stakes. Bill Pape's chestnut won just once in 2012, but placed in the Iroquois, Grand National and Colonial Cup to earn a nod as an Eclipse Award finalist. He'll make his seasonal return in a soft spot (thanks to the lone victory in 2012) at Stoneybrook April 6 with eyes on the $150,000 Iroquois in May.
The Sheppard barn is typically full of maidens, homebreds, fillies/mares and returnees. Look for mid-season returns from potential stakes players Royal Rossi, One Giant Step and Parker's Project. Aiken maiden starter Radical Chic finished second in his only jump start of 2012, while rookie Brilliant Match (a sister to One Giant Step and Three Carat among others) looks like to find a spot in the filly/mare division. Sheppard's horses, flat or jumps, pretty much all learn to jump early.
"We usually pop them over some fences in the fall of their 2-year-old year," he said. "It's not that important, but I think it helps them develop a little bit. I enjoy doing it. Things are winding down at that time of year, there might not be that much going on and you get to spend some time on them. It might be more for me than the horses."
Sheppard long since crossed the divide between jump racing and flat racing, with major wins and championships in both disciplines. He spent most of the winter in Florida, splitting his runners at Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs for a variety of clients including old-standbys Augustin Stable and Bill Pape and relatively new owner Bill Backer. The horses have won five races at the two meets, meaning Sheppard is not threatening Todd Pletcher or Jamie Ness at the top of the standings but he's in there swinging.
"We ran quite a lot between Tampa Bay and Gulfstream and didn't win many races," he said. "We had some good placings and things and we're sifting through some young horses to crank up for the spring and summer. I'm getting to know them. Hopefully, we'll take a good group to Keeneland."
In addition to Florida, Sheppard maintained divisions at home on the Pennsylvania Farm, at Springdale Training Center in Camden, S.C. and has stalls at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.
Stakes winner Angel Terrace will be among the group aiming for Keeneland next month. She won the Pin Oak Valley View there last fall and returns for a 4-year-old campaign for Augustin Stable. The daughter of Ghostzapper has won three of her seven lifetime starts. Three-year-old filly Remember Then broke her maiden at Keeneland last fall and aims for a return. Also owned by Augustin, the Kentucky-bred carries plenty of potential as a daughter of Pulpit and $865,000 earner Owsley. European-raced filly Gathering is also prepping for her American debut after winning one of six in Europe for Augustin.
Ever So Lucky, briefly on the Kentucky Derby trail last year, is out with a suspensory injury after two seconds in optional-claiming company at Gulfstream this winter. The son of Indian Charlie is out indefinitely.
"He ran two real good back-to-back races and it was all looking pretty good," said Sheppard. "He has a fairly significant injury, but we're hoping to bring him back even though there are no guarantees."
Veteran steeplechase mare Sweet Shani, long a favorite on the jump circuit after starting her American career in 2007, has been retired to begin a career as a broodmare. Bred in New Zealand and raced in Australia, she placed in several major races against males in the U.S. She was the 2011 filly/mare champion at age 11 and retired last year with nearly $340,000 in career earnings. Now owned by Sheppard, the powerhouse gray was bred to WinStar Farm stallion Spring At Last. The son of Silver Deputy fits, Sheppard said.
"I'm not a believer in breeding opposites because you get not one thing or the other, but you want to strengthen the weak part of your horses," he said. "She's a big, plain, old-fashioned mare with not a great deal of speed. He was a fast horse, medium-sized, fairly refined looking. He's by Silver Deputy out of Dynaformer mare, so it seemed like a good match."
Sweet Shani's sire Kashani (a son of Danzig) raced for Juddmonte Farm and trainer Bobby Frankel before embarking on a successful stud career in New Zealand.
"You never know in the breeding business, but I'm looking forward to it," said Sheppard, who sizeable broodmare band produces Pennsylvania-bred winners (many in partnership with Pape) every year. "She's rather qualified and might turn out to be a nice mare."
Sheppard and the Virginia-based Backer teamed up only in the last few years, proving old trainers can learn new tricks. Last year, they won a race at Saratoga with 2-year-old Hedonemwrongsong and at Keeneland with another juvenile Bogart. Sheppard likes what he sees from Backer's breeding program and called the horses a welcome addition to the barn.
"All his broodmares have some quality and he's pretty active," Sheppard said. "He's got 20 to 25 mares and he's breeding to some nice stallions. We started off with a couple and it's gradually built up. I appreciate the opportunity at my age."
Sheppard last captured an NSA training crown in 2010 when he won 26 of 96 starts. Last year, he won 11 of 78 to tie Richard Valentine for second behind Jack Fisher. Valentine (born in 1968), Brianne Slater (1979) and multiple champion Fisher (the veteran with a 1963 birthdate) are the main threats in 2013, though they'll get plenty of competition from the 24-time champion, who said "Hopefully we'll put up a little bit of a fight."
You can count on it.