Jonathan Sheppard scores his 14th New York Turf Writers win with a homebred.
My big, fat Italian Wedding? Well, not anymore.
Italian Wedding, as Jonathan Sheppard explained, “was quite small when he was a young horse and a little on the chubby side. He was kind of...cute, but he didn’t look really look like any major race horse. He looked like a fat little pony.”
Saddled with the barn name “Sausage” as a result, he proved on Aug. 22 that he is, quite decidedly, a major race horse with a victory in the $150,000 New York Turf Writers Grade 1 Hurdle Handicap in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with Bernard Dalton aboard.
Like all weddings, this was a family affair. Sheppard has won the Turf Writers race an astonishing 14 times, but this marked his first time winning with a horse he bred, trained and owned. He’s come close before, taking second in 2005 with a homebred named Three Carats.
“This is somewhat poetic justice,” Sheppard said. “This horse you could call his nephew—he’s the son of Three Carat’s sister—was able to win it this year.”
While any win is sweet, winning with a horse you bred and own, “adds another dimension,” Sheppard said. “I bought the grandmother [Gemini Gem] 21 years ago, so it’s been a fairly long process! And fairly expensive. We’ve had some highs and lows, as usually happens, so when it all comes to fruition, it does mean a little extra.”
Sheppard saddled four of the nine runners in the Turf Writers and was a bit surprised by the result. “I’ve often had multiple runners in the race, and everyone thinks I have a lock on it, and then they are usually the last four to finish!” he said with a laugh.
Not this time. In addition to the seasoned Sausage (who is 8) taking first, Sheppard, 72, also picked up a third-placed finish with his stable mate, Martini Brother, a 5-year-old co-owned by Sheppard and Bill Pape.
“I thought he [Martini Brother] ran a great race,” said Sheppard. “This was his first race in open company against the best older horses, and I thought he performed really, really well. I was very happy with him.”
Not so happy was Mrs. Pape. Explaining the difference between winning with your own horse versus one co-owned with someone else, Sheppard said, “In one way it feels better because breeding and owning a horse that has won a major race is pretty satisfying. In another, after it’s over, I’ve got the owners of the other horses pretty disappointed and no one to really share my win with. It’s fun having owners to enjoy the wins together. When it’s just you...” he trailed off. “Mrs. Pape looked pretty sour,” he added with a chuckle.
But Sheppard confessed to looking at all of his charges as his horses. “I almost have to remind myself, ‘Let’s see, do I own this one or do I own that one?’ I train them all the same; I try to do the best job I can regardless of who owns them, and it’s just the way the chips happened to fall this time,” he said.
So we have a seasoned horse winning for a seasoned trainer. It only makes sense that a seasoned jockey would be his pilot. Dalton is 45 years old and first rode Italian Wedding to a second-placed finish in the A.P. Smithwick earlier in the Saratoga meet.
“When he ran in the Smithwick, it was his first run for nearly a year and a half [March 2012], and he ran really well,” said Dalton. “He didn’t get tired, and it didn’t feel like the race took that much out of him, but when I got on him for the Turf Writers you could just tell, going to the start, he seemed so much more alert and sharp. He was giving me all the vibes I wanted to feel going down to the start, so I had plenty of confidence in him in the race.”
His confidence was well placed, the good vibes continued, and after the last jump Dalton knew he had it. “I flattened up and went to the lead. You’re always waiting for something to come to you because they always close up at the last at Saratoga. I heard one or two horses coming behind me, but I was pretty sure nobody was going to go by me. There is nothing like a win at Saratoga. Believe me,” he said with a laugh. “I only had two winners all spring, but a grade 1 winner at Saratoga negates all of that!”
As one of the older jockeys, it felt especially rewarding. “People always ask me, ‘Ah, how long are you going to keep riding?’ And I keep saying, ‘Ah, as long as I’m having fun,’ ” Dalton said. “I’m not scared, and I’m not the one that actually has to do the running. The horse has to carry me around, so it’s relatively easy!”
And “have fun” was the directive he received from Sheppard in the paddock. “He doesn’t give you a whole lot of instructions. He just said, ‘Get him relaxed and have fun,’ ” Dalton said.
A few minor issues resulted in Italian Wedding’s layoff last year. “I said, ‘Why don’t we just rest him and have a nice, fresh horse in the spring?’ which we did,” said Sheppard. “And then he got a splint, not a major thing, but it just requires time. And it took quite a bit of time.”
Sheppard conditioned him on the hills of his farm in the early summer and took him to the Fair Hill Training Center (Md.) to train on the track for speed work, which he credits with “picking his head up a bit.” Sheppard made one other change, too, keeping the chestnut gelding with him in Saratoga for the entire meet instead of rotating him back to the farm in West Grove, Pa.
“Because I have a little bit of added affection for him, and I felt he possibly could run a really big race in the Turf Writers I thought I’d just as soon keep him where I could see him,” said Sheppard. “I thought he trained well in Saratoga, and I rather enjoyed having him where I could see him almost every day.”
Sheppard isn’t the only one with affection for the horse: “He’s kind of a popular horse and well-liked in the barn. He’s pretty good-natured, pretty honest, pretty easy-going and pretty laid-back. As he’s grown and lengthened out people who haven’t seen him before look at him and think he’s a very nice looking horse.”
Perhaps it’s time for a new nickname?
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Italian Wedding Makes Sheppard A Proud Father At Saratoga" ran in the Sept. 9, 2013 issue.