Jonathan Sheppard, the all-time leader in wins and earnings among US steeplechase trainers, has based six horses in Ireland this winter.
Sheppard, a native of Ashwell, Hertfordshire, England, who has been based in the U.S.A. since 1961, recently won an unprecedented 25th training title on the National Steeplechase Association (NSA) circuit. Despite his continued success in America, he has never won a race in Europe. This year sees the first time Sheppard has based a string of horses there for an entire season, with the six Irish-based thoroughbreds being put through their paces by his assistant trainer Keri Brion and the 2020 NSA champion jockey Gerard Galligan.
The six horses now housed at Baltimore Stables in Co. Wexford, Ireland, are Winston C, French Light, Francois, Baltimore Bucko, Clondaw Camp and Fancy Pance.
In an interview with Past The Wire, Keri Brion discussed each of the Ireland-based horses.
French Light is a five-year-old gelded son of Muhtathir and is a two-time winner this year, with one of his victories being an allowance race at Saratoga. He was bought from James Doyle, where the Sheppard horses are based during their stay in Europe, this time last year.
“He was a very impressive four-year-old Point-to-Point winner at Boulta, Co Cork,” explains Keri Brion. “He ran 13 or 14 seconds quicker than the other division (of the race) and that horse sold for a lot of money. He was a much sought after horse and I was lucky to get to him first. I bought him for Irv Naylor, a very prominent owner in America. I got him (Naylor) back into our stable – he hadn’t had horses with Jonathan for a while. French Light has won two races in America but I think he is really special to be honest. He doesn’t care what ground he runs on; he’s really exciting and we have pretty high hopes for him. It looks like he is going to run in a rated novice hurdle at Cork on 2 January 2021, or five days later at Clonmel. I would like to think that maybe French Light will be Cheltenham quality. I’ve had the opinions of other riders who have been in here and sat on him and everybody thinks he’s pretty special so we’ll see.”
Francois is by Muhtathir and has not raced since winning at Maisons-Laffitte in France in 2018. Owned by Hudson River Farm, he was bought out of Arqana Sales in France as a three-year-old. “He just isn’t really suitable to America,” Ms. Brion says. “He wants soft ground and nothing else. We haven’t had much luck with him in the USA on our ground. We’ve brought him over here to Ireland to have a shot on ground he should like. He is a little further behind (than the other horses). His first run will probably be a little towards the end of January 2021 – we don’t have an exact race in mind for him yet.”
Baltimore Bucko is by Glenview Stud stallion Sholokhov and is a lightly-raced promising four-year-old gelding, racing in the colours of Buttonwood Farm. “He’s another really promising horse we like very much,” admits the Pennsylvania-born assistant trainer. “He’s won two races; he hasn’t really done much wrong in America. He won as a four-year-old at the beginning of this year. He’s run four times, with two wins and a second and is a really nice young horse and nothing seems to faze him. He will run his first race on 29 December 2020 in Limerick.”
Clondaw Camp is a five-year-old son of Sans Frontieres, bred in Ireland by Bryan Mangan. He was an easy winner on his only start for Buttonwood Farm in 2019. The Sheppard team has high hopes for this gelding, with Brion admitting “he is a very good horse who had some minor setbacks – nothing too big but he has been a bit unlucky. We brought him over to Ireland as we think he is a good horse.” Keri Brion, who purchased him for her USA owners two years ago, is aiming him at the Ladbrokes Hurdle at Naas on 31 January 2021.
Fancy Pance is a six-year-old maiden by Arcadio and is owned by Buttonwood Farm. “This horse was bought from James Doyle and was actually the first horse we bought from James,” divulges Brion. “He is a very nice horse, a very fast horse. Unfortunately he suffered an injury on his first start in America and he’s had to have the year off and is coming back now. He’s about ready to run. We think we might take him to a bumper (National Hunt flat race) just to start with, and go from there.”
He is a six-year-old Irish-bred son of the Coolmore sire Rip Van Winkle and was previously trained in England by Harry Fry. He was sold at the 2018 Tattersalls February Sale and exported to the USA, before winning two Grade 1 races in 2019 and being named Champion Steeplechase Horse of the Year. Owned by Hudson River Farm, he had a slight injury this spring and was given extra time off. The aim was to bring him back to run in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont in September but when that race was cancelled due to Covid-19 his owner Ed Swyer had the idea to send him overseas for a winter campaign. Winston C finished seventh in a training race on the flat at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup on 1 November, a race intended to improve his fitness. He will miss his initial intended target in Ireland, as Keri Brion explains: “Winston C suffered a minor setback last week but luckily it was nothing too major and it just caused him to miss a few days.” He will begin his European campaign in mid January 2021, and not on 31 December 2020 as initially hoped.
The plan for the US-trained horses is to get a handicap mark for them, with Winston C being the only horse currently having one, as Keri Brion explains:
“There are plenty of (race) options – we’re just going to get these first runs out of the way. We have to run for marks anyway – we’re lucky enough we’re able to run in the rated novice handicaps but they have to run for their actual marks. Once we’ll get one run under their belt, we’ll have a better idea what we’re doing.”
“I would say Winston C is the star of the show but we have two really nice novice horses, especially French Light, which I think very highly of,” Brion added.
The action gets underway for the Sheppard horses at Limerick on Tuesday, with Baltimore Bucko running in the opening race, the BRC McMahon Reinforcements Rated Novice Hurdle over 2 miles.
Photo: Keri Brion