We circle back to check in on Jonathan Sheppard in this week’s Spa Diary, our chronicle of the Saratoga meeting as seen by various Mid-Atlantic horsemen and women who are spending the meet at the Spa.
by Teresa Genaro
On day 33 of the 2014 Saratoga meeting, Jonathan Sheppard was ready to go home.
“I’ve been ready,” he said frankly, standing outside his barn in the Oklahoma annex, a short walk from the training track. “It’s too stressful up here. I love it here, but I am a bit of a homebody, to be honest.”
He’s got a home in Saratoga, but home is really his Pennsylvania farm, to which, by meet’s end, he will have travelled six times since mid-July. Throw in a trip to Presque Isle Downs and another to Camden, South Carolina, and it’s not hard to understand that a peripatetic summer lifestyle could be wearing.
The horses have done their part, too, to add to the stress. Through the first 10 jump races of the meet, Sheppard was winless, though his flat horses were running well: he’d gotten his first winner of the meet on July 26, and two others followed, his record of a win at every Saratoga meeting since 1968 securely intact.
Closing week dawned on Wednesday, bringing with it the last two jump races of the meet, but lest we start entertaining the possibility that hell might freeze over and pigs might fly, Sheppard righted the racing world, taking those last two races over the fences.
“I’m always very open-minded,” he said with a smile, reflecting on his expectations for the meet. “You don’t know what to expect, which is what keeps this game interesting. Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d won three steeplechase and no flat races. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we drew a blank for the whole meet.”
Saratoga increased the numbers of jump races it carded this year, and early on, Sheppard expressed concern that the horse inventory might not be sufficient to fill them. Weeks later, he was pleasantly surprised.
“I think everyone’s pulled together and done a remarkable job,” he said, “spearheaded of course by [National Steeplechase Association director of racing] Bill Gallo, who’s quite resourceful when it comes to filling races. And NYRA has worked with us, more so than in recent past years, so I think we’re all really very pleased with the way it’s gone.”
Beyond travels, beyond races, Sheppard has had an additional concern this summer, one not usually associated with him: medication. In July, two of his horses who had won at Delaware tested positive for the muscle relaxant robaxin; following a phone hearing, he was assessed a $1,000 fine for each horse, and each was disqualified from its first place finish.
Initially, perplexed by the positives, Sheppard thought he’d appeal, but a late-night revelation caused re-consideration.
“I could see how the one was just a little bit high—the horse had gotten the wrong feed tub or something, but the other one was eight times higher,” he said. “The state vet had told the commissioners that the only way a horse could have that high a positive was if he’d had a full dose of robaxin on the morning of the race.
“I went to bed that night and I woke up in the night worrying about it all. Then I remembered that my assistant at Delaware had ‘A.M.’ written in magic marker on the bottle of robaxin in the tack room. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, but there was one other horse in the entire barn who used to ship in and out [from Delaware Park] because he doesn’t train very well on the dirt, and the owner likes me to take him back to the farm between races. He was getting robaxin when he was there.
“And I said, ‘I’m going to get up right now, get my book out, and see whether that horse was in the barn the same day this other one ran,’ and sure enough he was. They’re both dark bays, and their stalls were only three or four apart.”
After speaking with his attorney Alan Foreman about the possibility of his barn staff administering the medication to the wrong horse, Sheppard decided that there was no sense in prolonging the matter.
“We might as well just pay the fine and get it behind us,” he said. “So that’s what we did.”
And then, of course, there’s Lasix.
Speaking earlier of this summer, Sheppard was rather dismissive of attempts to ban the raceday medication.
“It might be a nice gesture to the public to make it seem like we’re cleaning up our act,” he said, “but what it’s going to prove? If you want to ban it for everyone, fine, but it’s not going to make the slightest difference in how the game is played. There are always a certain percentage of people that are trying to beat the system, and there always will be.”
But within days, his name was among those of 25 trainers proposing the elimination of furosemide, first for two-year-olds next year, and then for all horses in 2016.
“I received a call from this guy at The Jockey Club called Jim,” said Sheppard this week, referring to president and CEO James Gagliano. “And he was rather forceful that he wanted my name on that list. I said, I don’t particularly have a problem with that — I mean I do have somewhat mixed feelings — but that’s a pretty well-respected group of people they signed up, particularly [trainer Todd] Pletcher, who seems to be one of the leaders and is one of the people that some people think has a little better feeding program than others.”
“So I said, ‘I just want to mention one thing,’” he went on. “’I have had two horses test positive at Delaware recently and the chances are they’re going to be disqualified, and I don’t want to bring attention to it in a bad way.’
“And [Gagliano] said, ‘You have a tremendous record. Anyone can have a hiccup along the way, and we’d very much like to have you on this list.’ I said fine.”
At its annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing, held August 10 in Saratoga, The Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps reiterated his call for federal legislation that would put into place federal oversight to implement medication reform, including the elimination of all raceday medication.
Gagliano confirmed that he’d made the call, saying that he understood that one of Sheppard’s owners had asked the trainer to join in supporting the ban. According to Gagliano, a representative of Pletcher wanted to confirm that, and Gagliano offered to call Sheppard.
Despite putting his name to the pledge, Sheppard voiced skepticism about its viability.
“I think it will reinforce the fact that there are definitely two sides to [the Lasix issue],” he said. “I mean, the HBPA [Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association] represents the majority, and there are more little people than there are big people, as there are in life itself.
“And I would say that little people at Mountaineer Park and Suffolk Downs–they can’t exist without Lasix. But from an aesthetic point of view, if you’re going to get into the lofty ideals of improving the breed, we should never have had it in the first place.”
(Featured image by Teresa Genaro.)