SARATOGA SPRINGS — Of the 79 previous editions of the New York Turf Writers Cup steeplechase at Saratoga Race Course, trainer Jonathan Sheppard won 15 of them.
Only appropriate, then, that in the race’s first running since it was renamed the Jonathan Sheppard Stakes in his honor, it was trainer Keri Brion — Sheppard’s assistant for 11 years prior to his retirement at the start of this year — who finished first.
“I guess,” Brion said in the winner’s circle after saddling The Mean Queen, Baltimore Bucko and French Light in a one-two-three sweep, “this is how it was always supposed to be.”
A little more than three hours earlier, Brion was in Saratoga’s stakes barn, watching over her four entries in the Jonathan Sheppard — she also had A Silent Player in the Grade I race — reflecting on the whirlwind that’s been her last nine months since the 80-year-old Sheppard retired from training.
That was news that was going to change her professional life, and Brion heard it through the grapevine.
She’d gone to Ireland last November in her role as Sheppard’s assistant, but only got the news from second- and third-hand sources.
“I heard through other people that the decision has been made for him to retire,” Brion said. “I never actually heard. It was very strange how it all went down.”
Sheppard’s decision to retire from training in the United States was announced in early January. Though it was initially announced that he intended to maintain a small string of horses in Ireland, Brion said that Sheppard’s temporary training license in Ireland was tied to his license in the U.S., and his decision to retire from American racing meant he had to relinquish his Irish license as well.
Very quickly, Brion’s plans were thrown into chaos as owners started calling her, letting her know that horses needed to be moved.
“Luckily,” Brion said, “my main owners were so loyal, and they said, ‘They’re yours to train if you can set it up.’”
The 30-year-old Brion was stuck in Ireland and couldn’t get back stateside due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, but was able to rent barn space at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Maryland, and arranging the move of the horses that would be coming with her from Sheppard’s farm in Pennsylvania.
All that while, Brion also had to get her own training license in Ireland to take charge of the six horses of Sheppard’s she’d brought across the pond with her.
It worked out, Brion said, “I guess, as it was supposed to work out,” as she soon became the first American trainer to win both a flat and steeplechase winner in Ireland.
Prior to this year, she’d trained a few horses under her own name — usually passed along to her by one of Sheppard’s owners — but Brion’s grand totals before 2021 consisted of 30 starters and a single win.
“They were always in Jonathan’s program, which I’ve continued with anyway, but I was lucky enough to have one or two, here or there,” Brion said. “I had trained a winner over jumps — technically. It was in Jonathan’s barn and everything. This is a bit different now.”
Entering Wednesday, Brion already had 42 entries and six winners on her resume in 2021.
Those six wins included her first at Saratoga, when Baltimore Bucko captured the Grade I A.P. Smithwick on July 22.
Brion had been involved with many of Sheppard’s more prominent horses over the past decade-plus and had played a major role in the training of Winston C, who swept both of Saratoga’s Grade I races in 2019 en route to an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top steeplechase horse.
Honestly, she said, she didn’t think that training on her own at Saratoga would be that much different.
It really, really was.
“It’s way different when it’s your own horse in your name,” she said. “I found these horses in Ireland for the owners, and they bought them off my recommendation, which makes it that much more special.”
Winning the race named after her boss and mentor, the man who taught her the ropes of steeplechase racing?
That’s a whole different level.
“Everything I know about jump racing, it’s all from him,” Brion said. “He’s the only jump trainer I ever worked full-time for. When I started working for him, I wasn’t even interested in jump racing. He created that interest in me, and the love for the sport.”
Sheppard, who was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1990, crafted a legendary legacy at Saratoga, where he saddled at least one winner in every meet from 1969 to 2015 — an unmatched streak of 47 consecutive years — and won training titles in 1984 and 1985.
That the Grade I New York Turf Writers Cup was renamed in Sheppard’s honor seemed only fitting.
Brion hasn’t been able to keep in touch much with Sheppard since his retirement — he lives in Florida and has been dealing with declining health that prevented him from being at the barn at all in 2020 — but recalled a discussion when talks came about naming a race for him.
“He said this to me, when we were still talking all the time, ‘I thought you had to be dead to have a race named after you,’” Brion said. “Not when you’re Jonathan Sheppard, you don’t.”
That Wednesday’s win came from The Mean Queen and jockey Thomas Garner only added to the thrill of the moment. Three weeks earlier in the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes, The Mean Queen was six lengths clear of the field down the stretch when the 5-year-old mare unseated Garner.
Wednesday, as The Mean Queen kicked past Baltimore Bucko down the stretch of the 2 3/8-mile race for a 4 3/4-length win, was a bit of sweet redemption.
“It’s just one of those mistakes and I’ve put it behind me very quickly,” Garner told the New York Racing Association. “If I dwelled on it, I think it would have hurt me a lot more, but I’ve moved on and here we are today. We made amends.”
“I had no doubt,” Brion said, “that she would run a huge race.”
In Wednesday’s other stakes race, Chi Town Lady won the 5 1/2-furlong Bolton Landing over the Mellon turf course for trainer Wesley Ward and jockey John Velazquez.
ADVANCE TRAVERS TICKETS DISCOUNTED
NYRA announced Wednesday that grandstand general admission tickets purchased in advance for Travers Day on Aug. 28 will be $15 — a $5 discount from walk-up price. Tickets may be purchased at the NYRA box office by Gate A, or online at NYRA.com/Travers (service fees apply online).
There are also a limited number of clubhouse tickets available for $25. There will be no clubhouse upgrades on Travers Day.
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