SARATOGA SPRINGS — It seemed strange not to see a Jonathan Sheppard horse entered in a steeplechase race at Saratoga Race Course.
The Hall of Fame trainer retired from U.S. racing in January — he maintains a small string in Ireland — so his name was nowhere to be found in the pocket program for the Grade I A.P. Smithwick on Thursday.
His former assistant for 11 years, Keri Brion, did show up in the race, though, and in the winner’s circle that had been so familiar to Sheppard, too. Baltimore Bucko got to the lead right away and never gave it up over eight fences and 2 1/16 miles of the course to give Brion a Grade I victory just months after she took over Sheppard’s stock.
Another horse trained by Brion, French Light, finished second in the field of six.
“It’s surreal,” Brion said. “Just making it here and having the entries is crazy to see. It’s been a whirlwind couple months since taking over. It was very sudden and I had no idea it was happening.
“I was in Ireland when it was happening. I had to move my whole string to Fair Hill [Maryland] and the owner stayed with me which was great. Their loyalty to me is why I’m here. These horses, fair enough, I did pick them out in Ireland, but they could have sent them anywhere, but they stayed loyal.”
Baltimore Bucko jumped outward at fences three, four and five, but after the field tightened up at the seventh fence, he and jockey Thomas Garner were straight over the eighth hurdle and were able to kick home to win comfortably by 5 3/4 lengths as the betting favorite at just under 3-1.
The 5-year-old gelding began 2021 racing three times in Ireland, with nothing to show for it, then just missed by a head in the Green Pastures at Percy Warner in Nashville, Tennessee on June 26.
Besides Baltimore Bucko and French Light, Brion also saddled Galway Kid for the A.P. Smithwick. He finished fifth.
“He [Baltimore Bucko] actually won on the lead in the fall,” she said. “It wasn’t a very good race, but he still had done it. My other two need something to run at, and I didn’t think there was much pace, so I figured maybe he would get loose on the lead and no one would catch him.
“That was the tactical plan. It’s hard to have three in a race and figure out what the best thing to do is. Tom gave him a great ride and no one came after it. They kind of gave him the race, but I’m not complaining.”
“I took a pull three or four times just to stack them up behind me, and I could use his jumping to kick on down the back,” Garner said. “I really thought someone should have come to me a lot sooner, but then again my lad may have actually carried me further. He’s done it really nicely and I haven’t even given him a smack with my stick. I was really happy with the way he won it, and he’s a horse for the future.”
The 80-year-old Sheppard’s name will figure prominently in the Saratoga program on Aug. 19.
The Grade I New York Turf Writers Cup has been renamed for him.
He is the National Steeplechase Association’s all-time leading trainer by wins (1,242) and purse earnings ($24,902,442), and also won at least one race at Saratoga for 47 straight years.
Brion said she’s looking forward to bringing Baltimore Bucko, French Light and perhaps a third horse to the Jonathan Sheppard stakes next month.
“I learned so much from him,” Brion said. “Even how I brought them up here and how I got them here two days ahead of time, which is something Jonathan always did. There’s just a lot of preparation.
“We worked him [Baltimore Bucko] in the field two weeks ago, worked him on the track last week and that’s what he [Sheppard] always did to get ready for the Smithwick. I feel like I’m so fortunate to have worked for him, I have learned so much. My success is just the product of him, honestly. I’m very lucky.”
AUTOGRAPHS FOR A CAUSE
On Saturday, the New York Racing Association will honor the legacy of late trainer Dominic Galluscio while raising funds and awareness for pancreatic cancer research during Lustgarten Foundation Day at Saratoga.
The day’s first race will be named in honor of Galluscio, a New York circuit regular since 1981 who passed away in 2014 following a battle with pancreatic cancer.
The centerpiece of the day will be a trainer autograph session from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Jockey Silks Room Porch to benefit The Lustgarten Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing scientific and medical research related to pancreatic cancer.
The trainer autograph session is expected to include 2021 Hall of Fame inductee Todd Pletcher, four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown as well as Hall of Famers Bill Mott, Nick Zito and others.
Saratoga Race Course will feature purple décor in honor of The Lustgarten Foundation and donation bins will be positioned throughout the track grounds.
PLEASURE LUCK EUTHANIZED
Pleasure Luck, who was vanned off with an injury to her right front leg after the eighth race on Sunday, was euthanized at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital on Monday, according to the New York Gaming Commission’s Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database.
It was the second equine death from racing-related injuries of the meet, both on the main track, after Strong Moment injured her left front in the 10th race last Friday and was euthanized on the track.
There have been two equine deaths from injuries during training hours since workouts began in April.
The 5-year-old gelding Mister Bobby collapsed and died after a gallop on the main track on May 13, and on Monday, the 3-year-old filly Fattoria unseated her rider on the main track, ran loose into the barn area and fell, suffering a pelvic injury that necessitated euthanasia.
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