MIDDLEBURG, Va.-Jonathan Sheppard and Jack Fisher have dominated steeplechasing for the past five decades, and they started off the 2020 season in the same way, winning five of the 11 races between them..
A Hall of Fame trainer, Sheppard is the all-time leading steeplechase trainer by both wins and earnings, while Fisher, the perennial leading trainer in the past two decades, set a purse earnings record of almost $1.6-million last year.
Jonathan Sheppard's barn had a spectacular beginning in the very belated 2020 steeplechasing season, winning three of the 11 races at the Middleburg Spring Races on June 13 and having 11 of his 13 entries in races with a purse finish to win a piece of the money.
Not only were the results great in Middleburg, but they also bode well for the future, as all three winners plus two that finished a good second and third are 4 and 5 year olds in their first or second race over fences.
Fisher saddled two winners, including Bruton Street-US' Moscato (GB), who won the featured G3. $50,000 Temple Gwathmey by 11 1/2 lengths over Belasarius.
While Sheppard's barn are winning with youngsters, Fisher has a daunting list of top horses, including three belonging to Bruton Street-US, Moscato, Snap Decision and Scorpiancer, the 2017 Eclipse champion, and other graded winners like Schoodic.
The rest of this year's battle between these two top trainers, who finished one-two in last year's Leading Trainer standings, could make for a very interesting season, but with Sheppard's group so young, Fisher probably has the edge in the big stakes for this year, but the next few year's could become even more interesting.
"IT WAS VERY much a team effort," said Sheppard, who elected to stay in Florida and watch the races live streamed. "I've been in Florida a lot of this winer, and Keri an the rest of the crew did a breat job helping me to get these horses ready."
With the protocols in place, there were no spectators allowed, very limited number of people allowed from each barn and only one person was allowed in the paddock to saddle the horses and one person to lead the horses.
"I usually saddle the horses anyway," said Keri Brion, Sheppard's assistant trainer, "It was strange with wearing a mask all day, and with 11 races it was a very long day. Jonathan was better off watching the races live streamed. Cyril Murphy was another trainer that wasn't there."
Murphy in fact had the first winner on the card, Irv Naylor's Chief Justice in a Training Flat race with no purse.
Brion saddled Sheppard's first winner, the 5-year-old Galway Kid (GB) in the second race, the $25,000 Glenwood Hurdle Allowance race at 2 1/8 miles, who won by a neck over Brianbakescookie for Jack Fisher.
Owned by Ed Swyer's Hudson River Farms and ridden by Darren Nagle, Galway Kid had his second win from three starts over fences.
"I always liked him," said Sheppard. "But every time you win, you'll be in tougher company next time out. He'll have to run in open company next time."
"I think he's going to be very good," said Brion. "Hopefully, he'll be a graded stakes horse in the future."
Another Try, a 4-year-old Sheppard homebred by Redeemed co-owned by Sheppard and Swyer, finished second to Critical Data, trained by Richard Valentine, in a $20,000 Maiden Hurdle.
That was Another Try's third start over fences after having been an allowance winner on the flat and his second time to finish second after having started his career over fences in a stakes in which he was fifth.
Naylor's French Light (Fr) looked like a sure winner in the second $20,000 Maiden Hurdle but raced greenly in the stretch to end up third by a length to Hot Springs, trained by Arch Kingsley, and Lonely Weekend.
"He got to the gate in the stretch, and I think he thought it was over," said Brion. "I don't think he knew he was in a race. He is very, very, very highly regarded. I think he's going to be a super star."
Buttonwood Farm's 4-year-old Zoom Zoom Zoe (Ire) won the $15,000 Maiden Filly race by 5 1/4 lengths in her first start.
"I found her in Ireland and got her from James Doyle," said Brion. "She had just finished third against the boys in a point-to-point in Ireland, and the two that beat her were sold to Gordon Elliott for a lot of money. I think she's one for the future."
West Grove Venture's 5-year-old Hyperlapse (Ire) won the $5,000 Waiver Maiden Claiming race by 15 lengths in his first race over fences..
"I own part of him," said Brion. "West Grove Venture is essentially the same group as Team Ollie, with a couple out and a couple of new share holders. I got him form Jimmy Day."
Buttonwood Farm's 5-year-old The Silent Trainer (Ire) finished third to Storm Team, trained by Fisher, and Flash Jackson,in the $10,000 Maiden Timber race in his first start.
"We bought him specifically to be a timber horse," said Brion. "I got French Light, Zoom Zoom Zoe and The Silent Trainer all from James Doyle's Baltimore Stables in Ireland. We were able to get them early on before they went to the sales and went to trainers like Gordon Elliott, where they'd win a lot and then get sold to this country for a lot of money."
"I was really please with all the horses," said Brion. "It was a good day. Our team here, all the riders, the jockeys, everyone, has been brilliant. We all really appreciate the owners that kept horses with us when there was no racing. It's nice to see them get a bit of a reward after all their loyalty."
FISHER saddled Sheila William's Storm Team to win the $10,000 Maiden Timber as well as winning the Temple Gwathmey with Moscato.
Moscato won the Temple Gwathmey for the second time, both times over Belisarius, but this year by 11 1/2 lengths.
"Moscato probably should have also won the Iroquois last year, but he got stopped in the stretch," said Fisher, who won that race with Scorpiancer. "He'll probably go to Saratoga. I have three horses for Bruton Street, Snap Decision, Moscato and Scorpiancer, so I try not to run them against each other."
"I didn't run Scorpiancer at Middleburg," said Fisher. "He doesn't run well first time out. Snap Decision will go to the Gold Cup, and maybe Scorpiancer too."
The Virginia Gold Cup on June 27 features the Gold Cup Timber Stakes and a $40,000 hurdle race.
Leslie Young saddled Ballybristol Farm LLC's Andi'amu (Fr) to win the featured $20,000 Middleburg Hunt Cup Open Timber by 3 3/4 lengths.
"The plan was to do the same as last year, run him at Middleurg and then in the Gold Cup," said Young of Andi'amu, who won both last year and was Timber Horse of the Year. "Tom Garner gave him a beautiful ride. It was his first time on him after Jack Doyle had been riding him."
"Tom has finished second twice in the Pardubice Steeplechase, so I wasn't concerned about having him ride Andi'amu instead of Jack," said Young.
The Pardubice is the most difficult and oldest cross country horse race that takes place every year in Europe in Pardubice.
The oldest and probably the most difficult cross country horse race on the continent has been held since 1874 in Pardubice, and the horses and riders must cope with a track 6,900 m long and overcome 31 obstacles.
"I was a bit of a passenger," said Garner. "He's the type of horse where you think you're just hacking along, but he's got such a big stride. I thought I was going to slow, but the spectators thought I was going fast. With the travel restrictions, Jack couldn't get over here for this race. Fingers crossed, I'll be able to ride him in the Gold Cup, too."