As the late November afternoon sunshine splashed off the majestic San Gabriel Mountains, Jonathan Sheppard was back at his barn at Santa Anita Park tending to his trio of runners. It was a day most trainers can only dream about.
Four-year old Informed Decision put the Chester County trainer in Santa Anita’s winner circle with a thoroughly dominating performance in the $2 million Breeder’s Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. One race later Forever Together, Sheppard’s champion filly of 2008, found no pace in the race and finished third in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf. The six-year old mare will race again in 2010.
Still, Sheppard’s most impressive training feat occurred with Cloudy’s Knight in the first race on the 2009 Breeders’ Cup card. The $500,000 Marathon was just the third race of the season (two wins last fall) for the 9-year old gelding and former Canadian champion, returning after missing a year with a serious hind leg tendon injury. On the final turn Cloudy’s Knight exploded with a huge move, going three-wide to take the lead before being nosed out at the wire in the 1 ¾-mile race. Thoroughbreds at that advanced age rarely return in such top form.
"I do take a certain amount of pride in that we did something that's rather unique,” says British native Sheppard, now in his fifth decade of training in America. “But you have to have the right type of horse to do things like that. Cloudy’s Knight is just a remarkable animal.”
In addition, Sheppard trainee Mixed Up clinched 2009 championship steeplechase honors and an Eclipse Award (racing’s Oscar). The Pennsylvania-bred 10-year old is co-owned by Unionville’s William Pape and Sheppard. It marked the first time a trainer has won an Eclipse on both the flat and over jumps. In another life Sheppard won the steeplechase money title for 18 consecutive years (1973-’90). That got him elected to Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1990. His alumni include Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer Janet Elliot and noted jump trainer Sandra Neilson. So are Barclay Tagg, trainer of 2003 Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, and Graham Motion who won the 2004 Breeders Cup $2 million Turf Race and placed second in the $1 million Filly & Mare Turf Race.
“His system, the way he trains on the farm is totally unique, not comparable to anything anywhere in America,” Motion relates. For running first, second and third in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, Sheppard earned $828,000 in purse money. By year’s end his earnings climbed to $5,496,258. Training a fraction of the number of good horses that super-stables like Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen train, Sheppard still recorded 16 graded stakes wins and seven Grade I triumphs (the same as Asmussen and three more than Pletcher) in 2009.
As for graybeard Cloudy’s Knight, he put an exclamation point on the season with decisive wins at 12 furlongs in the Valedictory Stakes in Canada and the W. L. McKnight Handicap in Florida in December, earning $426,759 in 2009. Sheppard, 69, has performed this trick over and over at his European-type training facility on the outskirts of West Grove, Pa.
The farm’s stock spends as much time as possible outdoors, even if that means hooking a snow-blade to the tractor and plowing a path to the paddocks. In a winter that saw three unprecedented “monster” snowfalls sock the region Sheppard and his staff were challenged.
“We try to be creative by putting the snow to use, like getting good gallops on the bridle paths,” explains Sheppard. “In the snow they get good strong gallops that helps build a strong foundation so when they ship south they’re ready to roll as we prepare them for their racing schedules.”
So what’s up with the run of recent champions?
“As far as I can tell I’ve trained them the same way that I have for the past 43 years,” Sheppard replies. “A lot of (the success) is our closer-to-nature approach. My vet says he sees a lot less respiratory problems than other clients from the racetrack or the horses of eventing and dressage people. We don’t close up the barn when it gets really cold like they might do with show horses. We keep the air moving and we’ve found that quite beneficial over the long run.”
In southern Chester County learning the ways of horses is a family affair. The skills are treasured and honed for generations. Traveling along winding country roads, emerald fields roll away in every direction, punctuated by naturally wooded creeks and grand, historic horse farms. Much of the land is dotted with rambling old stone houses with a horse trailer half-hidden behind a barn.
The village of Unionville is its heartbeat. Reminiscent of rural England and Ireland, saddle shops brim with bridles, crops, tall boots and the smell of rich leather. Blacksmiths are always in demand. Its idyllic countryside first attracted talented flat and steeplechase trainers, foxhunters, combined driving enthusiasts, show hunters and jumpers, three-day eventers and proudly claims the owners of a pair of Kentucky Derby champions.
Looking back at the Kentucky Derby— the world’s most famous horserace— from 2003 to 2008 the achievements of Chester County connections are simply astonishing: 1st- 1st- 3rd- 1st- 2nd- 2nd.
They are golden names in a golden time of Chester County racing: Funny Cide, trained by former local timber rider Barclay Tagg; Smarty Jones, born at Someday Farm near New London; Afleet Alex, owned by a partnership headed by Phoenixville’s Chuck Zacney; Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s iconic Barbaro; Hard Spun, born at Betty Moran’s Brushwood Stable outside Malvern; and Rick Porter’s gallant, but star-crossed filly Eight Belles. Last year, Porter’s Friesan Fire was the Derby betting favorite, but was stepped on coming out of the gate, suffered a nasty cut to his left front foot and faded rapidly on the backstretch.
In addition, George Strawbridge’s sensational turf runners closed out the decade by winning Eclipse Awards-- Forever Together in the 2008 season and Informed Decision in 2009. When not racing, both fillies spend their time picking grass in pastures at Sheppard’s Ashwell Stable outside of West Grove.
Just down the road from Sheppard’s farm you’ll find a Quaker settlement that dates back to the earliest days of the Colonies. Chester County was part of the original land grant to William Penn and is still farmed and maintained by their descendants. It is an enchanted land known throughout the world for luxuriant pastures framed by post-and-rail fences weathered to a pleasant grayish brown. The limestone-rich soil fosters speed and stamina in the superior horses the land breeds.
Foxhunting the foundation
It was that topography and soil that drew a cluster of business executives and sporting gentlemen from Long Island, N. Y. at the close of the 19th century to the region. They began purchasing parcels of land and establishing packs of foxhounds. Chasing the elusive red fox, those hunters laid the foundation for the top-notch horsemen that would follow in the coming decades.
Jump racing, spawned from the foxhunting field, in this region was launched with the Radnor National Hunt Cup in 1909. The steeplechase season followed winter foxhunting when hunters tested the speed of their mounts-- a combination of hunting in the field and racing from point to point. The Chester County gallop-and-jump countryside has been painted by the Wyeth family and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock for the hunt scenes in “Marnie.”
In and around Unionville these names are synonymous with great success in the world of steeplechase racing: Cocks, Dixon, Bird, Valentine, Fanning, Ryan, Fisher, Houghton, Elder, Ledyard, Carrier, Weymouth, Stroud, Meister, Baldwin, Miller, Elliot, Jenney, Jones, and Neilson.
However, if you trace the origins of Chester County’s spirited equine activities they point to the ancestors of Nancy Penn Smith Hannum. Now age 90, Mrs. Hannum is a maternal granddaughter of Edward Henry Harriman (a late 19th century railroad mogul) who ran a pack of American Fox Hounds near the town of Westbury, Long Island from the 1870s through the 1890s.
Nancy’s mother Carol Harriman married R. Penn Smith, a prominent member of the Bryn Mawr Hunt who managed prized racehorses for the wealthy Cassatt family. The president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Co., A.J. Cassatt was a horse enthusiast and foxhunter, and proprietor of Chesterbrook Farm in Berwyn. He owned 1886 Preakness Stakes winner The Bard, and three years later Belmont Stakes winner, Eric. In addition, Cassatt bred the winner of the 1875, 1876, 1878, and 1880 Preakness Stakes as well as Foxford who won the 1891 Belmont. Cassatt was one of nine prominent men who founded the National Steeplechase Association in 1895.
After Smith died suddenly in 1929, Carol married W. Plunkett Stewart, and along with her daughters Nancy (age 10) and Averell moved from their farms on Long Island and near Middleburg, Va. to Unionville full-time. Stewart had moved to Unionville in 1912 from Greensprings, Md., purchasing Chesterland Farm where he stabled horses and built kennels across what is today Route 82. He chose to call his pack the Cheshire Foxhounds because of his love for the picturesque English town of Chester in the county of Cheshire. Gradually, English foxhounds—the first lot from Warwickshire— replaced the American hounds in Stewart’s pack.
Always the visionary, the Master of the Hunt encouraged his well-heeled friends to buy property in the Unionville area to preserve the countryside and keep it open for fox hunting.
“Mr. Stewart was a genuine leader and admired by all,” recalls Hannum in a sitting room at her red brick home at Brooklawn Farm that is deeded back to 1658. “He made all the calls when we were hunting and when an order was given he expected it to be carried out. I was also taught the value of preserving the land. To me this countryside has always been God’s heaven.”
After Stewart’s death in 1948, Nancy Hannum took over as Master of the Hunt. She hunted each season until injuries forced her to stop in 2004. She also trained her share of prestigious steeplechase winners.
In the 1930s Carol Plunkett was the owner of an outstanding group of thoroughbred broodmares and stallions with which she bred a number of Grade 1 (racing highest level) stakes winners. Her colt Pasteurized was best known for winning the 1938 Belmont Stakes. Trained by former jockey and future U. S. Racing Hall of fame inductee George Odom, Pasteurized bypassed both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes electing to compete in the 1 1/2-half mile Belmont Stakes winning by a neck over Preakness winner Dauber.
The region’s horse industry employs thousands of people and supports a huge agri-business from the farmers who harvest the hay, grain, and straw for the horses to the breeders who have put a strong horse foundation in the Keystone State. It's the reason there are such beautiful horse farms and sprawling stretches of open space. Today, there are more than 43,000 acres of land in the Brandywine watershed area that are permanently protected.
The local horse community supports tractor and farm supply companies, blacksmiths, veterinarians, feed suppliers, tack shops, maintenance workers, saddlers, hot walkers, grooms, exercise riders, mom and pop stables, and so on. Both the economy and the environment win.
“There has always been a great racehorse heritage in the southeastern Pennsylvania region,” insists Russell Jones, a local longtime bloodstock agent. “And it was long before the racetracks started operating in the late 1960s. George Widener, Sam Riddle, Fitz Dixon raised great horses and were big-time players on the national scene. In the 1980s this area produced two of the most influental and important sires of the modern American era in Danzig and Storm Cat at Derry Meeting Farm.”
Mary Alice Malone is among those who call this historic area home. The rolling hills and spacious pastures at her Iron Hill Springs Farm comprise nearly a thousand acres. Focusing on Dutch Warmbloods and Friesians, Iron Spring is recognized as one of the most successful sport horse farms in America. Iron Springs’ sons and daughters have produced everything from Olympic competitors to champions at dressage at the Devon Horse Show over the past three decades.
Lisa Singer grew up riding a donkey both in horse shows and as her boarding school mascot. When a friend introduced her to a team of Welsh ponies Singer was hooked on the sport of combined driving. Modeled after the Three Day Event, which tests the overall condition and versatility, horses and ponies compete separately in single, pairs, tandem, and teams-- two pair, one in front of the other.
Internationally acclaimed, Singer has won the U. S. pairs championship in combined driving more than any other driver. On seven occasions she has represented the United States in the World Championships. Her breed of choice is Morgans. A grandmother of four, she lives on her farm, Chateau Log.
Gretchen Jackson revels in this world of horses. She and her husband Roy have operated Lael Farm for nearly 30 years just down the road from the New Bolton Center. Looking down from their home across much of the farm’s 190 acres, brown-fenced paddocks are home to their 13 horses and ponies, plus four really cute miniature donkeys. Each morning at 7 a.m. Gretchen feeds and checks on all of them. “For me this is heaven, and I thank God each day for it,” she marvels. “The morning is the best part of the day. I just enjoy being outdoors watching the wildlife, being with the dogs and horses. I enjoy touching the horses and caring for them.”
Growing up on a sheep and cattle farm in the starkly beautiful Australian outback, Phillip Dutton never imagined he would strike gold twice at the Olympics and become one of the most storied eventing riders on the circuit. Back then he spent much of his day on horseback, holding herd or riding a fence line.
“Our day-to-day work was done riding horses, so if you fell off you had a long walk home,” laughs Dutton, 47. “You learned to stay on your horse and take care of him. I naturally migrated toward eventing since it requires all-round horsemanship.”
Despite nearly two decades here Dutton’s Australian accent remains as sharp and tangy as a pint of Fosters at the local pub. His True Prospect Farm near West Grove, Pa. boasts eighty acres of lovely pastures, cross country jumps, a spacious indoor arena, and a half-mile galloping track.
“This countryside is ideal for getting horses in shape fitness-wise,” says Dutton. “For decades there have been so many champion horses and horsemen. My time here has gone way beyond all my dreams. I’ve trained and competed with some of the best horses in the world.” A naturalized American citizen in 2006, Dutton was named U. S. Equestrian Association Rider of the Year for the 11th time in 2009. He is currently preparing to compete in the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky. this fall with his elite mounts Woodburn and TruLuck. Dozens of the sport’s top up-and-coming riders train with him. Dutton was named the USEF Developmental Coach of the Year for 2009. "There is a ground-swell in the sport all across country and virtually anyone can participate at low level events and have fun,” Dutton relates. “I get enormous satisfaction seeing people improve.”
Sixty-four years ago, retired Brigadier General Charles B. Lyman opened the gates of Maui Meadow Farm near West Chester, a short distance east of Unionville. Named for the Hawaiian military base where he was stationed during World War II, the farm would evolve over time into an important regional full-service facility and is the oldest working thoroughbred operation in the Keystone State. Maui Meadow owned the first stallion ever syndicated to stand in the Keystone state, Bold Effort, a son of the legendary Bold Ruler. Today, Charles III operates the farm.
Horse-trading has deep roots within Russell Jones’ family. His paternal Swedish ancestors settled a parcel of land in 1642, while his mother’s English side arrived in 1685. Horses dominated all their lives.
Russell and his late brother Richie settled into Walnut Green Farm near West Grove in 1976. Three years later they launched a bloodstock agency. In the fall of 1983, they traveled to the Keeneland sale in Kentucky with Producer in foal to the legendary Northern Dancer. When the hammer fell she set a record price of $5,250,000 for a broodmare. “Two young guys from Chester County go to legendary Keeneland and blow the roof off,” recalls Jones who took up foxhunting at age six. “It was some pretty heady stuff.”
The brothers boarded, bred, raised, sold and traded thoroughbreds and built Walnut Green into one of the leading thoroughbred outfits in the mid-Atlantic region. They sold the business to a group led by former top trainer and leading bloodstock agent Mark Reid in 2005. One of Jones’ clients was Jim Ryan who bred 1983 Belmont Stakes winner Caveat and raced a string of stakes winners. Jones advised the Maryland family for nearly three decades.
“Russell says what he believes is right and cuts through all that politically correct stuff,” says Ryan, 76. “He’s a truth-teller, and God knows we need that in the horse industry today. He showed that a regional guy outside Kentucky could compete. Russell Jones is one of the best stories in the thoroughbred industry.”
Master of the turf
Trainer Sheppard runs his operation out of a late 19th century dairy barn converted for racehorses. Inside, a cluster of thick leather and brass halters hang from an overhead hook. A chestnut filly gets a foot trimming with very little fuss. A veterinarian administers vaccinations. Off in a corner the mash of hot oats is brewing in a steel kettle. Horses poke their heads out of adjoining stalls, while a pair of crescent horned goats wander at will keeping both animals and humans company.
The morning after a dazzling snowfall two grays are led out to an adjacent field joining a mob of other fillies. The champion grays-- Forever Together and Informed Decision-- dig and pick at hidden shoots of grass, then suddenly wheel around and gallop off, white plumes steaming from their nostrils in the frosty air.
“No question the past few years have been the pinnacle of my career,” relates their owner George Strawbridge, Jr. “Horses are the noblest animals God created. Considering there are so many exceptional horses racing, anytime you have a champion that is a hell of an accomplishment.” A former amateur steeplechase jockey Strawbridge is a major heir to the Campbell Soup Company where he serves on the board of directors. His Augustin Stable has owned and or bred many champions here and in Europe including Tikkanen, With Anticipation, Lucarno, Selkirk, Silver Fling, and Turgeon. In 1968 he met Sheppard at a dinner party in South Carolina and things began to snowball from there.
“Jonathan has produced so many good horses for me,” says Strawbridge, 71. “He cares deeply about all of his horses. He spends as much time with the bad ones as he does with the good ones.” Ashwell’s training assistant Jim Bergen says horses are just like people. They have personalities and quirks. “We bring horses off the track to the farm and turn them out,” says Bergen. “They get to be horses again-- pick grass, roll around. It’s a pretty distinctive part of Jonathan’s training. The horses go up and down bridle paths through the woods, plus we have so many venues here where we can train. It keeps the horses fresh, especially the fillies.”
Rainbow View is one of them. Strawbridge’s 2008 European 2-year old champion filly joined the barn last November. You will also find graded stakes winner Just as Well and Fantasia, another relocated English classic contender. Toss in champion steeplechaser Mixed Up and a couple of promising three-year olds and Sheppard’s racing operation is once again brimming with talent. He credits his Unionville mentor Hall of Famer Cocks for this sage piece of advice.
“Rather than force them, he would work around a problem, always looking for a horse’s best qualities and tendencies,” Sheppard explains. “His credo was that you have to see the best in a horse to get the best out of a horse.”