Hall of Fame Trainer Sheppard in Town for Pago Hop

Legendary Thoroughbred trainer Jonathan Sheppard was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga two decades ago, but believes this Saturday may be only the second time he has come to New Orleans to run a horse at Fair Grounds.

“I think I came here about 15 years ago to run one or two horses during one of your tent meetings,” said Sheppard, referring to the years immediately after the catastrophic fire of December 1993, when temporary structures were used as a new Grandstand was rebuilt.

The trainer recalled the visit Friday morning during training hours on the backstretch of the Crescent City’s historic oval. “I really don’t remember much about it,” he said. “It was a fairly quick trip.”

However, with his 3-year-old Kitten’s Joy filly Kitty Love, owned by Augustin Stable, as one of the prominent contenders in Saturday’s 25th anniversary edition of the $60,000 Pago Hop Stakes, Sheppard has been combining business with pleasure this week, bringing his wife Cathy to enjoy New Orleans for a couple of days before heading back north after the Pago Hop.

“My wife and I got to tour the city a little bit yesterday (Thursday, Sheppard’s 70th birthday),” said the horseman who is Steeplechase racing’s all-time leading money-winning trainer. “We drove around the Garden District, enjoyed a light lunch, walked down Bourbon Street for a little bit and then had a very nice dinner at Commander’s Palace.”

Born in Great Britain near Newmarket, Sheppard came to this country as a young man, working for Steeplechase trainer Burley Cocks as an assistant and a jockey. One of his first clients – and still his primary owner – was George Strawbridge Jr., owner of Augustin Stable.  

Following his masterful handling of Flatterer, America’s top Steeplechaser from 1983-1986, Sheppard enjoyed continued success after branching out to Thoroughbreds – most recently with 2008 Eclipse winner Forever Together as the top female turf horse and 2009 Eclipse winner Informed Decision as the top female sprinter.

Now along comes Kitty Love, hopefully to help replace those two now-retired champions.

“She is going to have some big shoes to fill,” said Sheppard of his latest potential star, “but I think she may turn out to be a nice filly for us. She had a nice work here Monday (a bullet half in 47.20), galloped Tuesday and went an easy half Wednesday.”  

Kitty Love broke her maiden at first asking Sept. 6 on the grass at Delaware Park, won again in her second start at Keeneland Oct. 22 over the Lexington lawn and finished third beaten two lengths in her most recent start at Churchill on Nov. 10 when beaten two lengths after racing five-wide.

Did the lost ground over the Louisville lawn make the difference between victory and defeat?

“Probably not,” said the always candid Sheppard. “I think maybe she just didn’t accelerate quite quick enough.”

Rosie Napravnik, who is hanging her tack at Fair Grounds for the first time this winter, has ridden Kitty Love in all three of her starts and she will be aboard again this Saturday.

“I’ve known her off and on since she was 13 years old and came to work for me on my farm,” said Sheppard of Napravnik. “We’ve had some success in the past and she rode very well for me this summer at Delaware Park. We seem to be back on track together lately,”

NAPRAVNIK HOPES TO KEEP MOMENTUM GOING – Jockey Rosie Napravnik is back at Fair Grounds after a scintillating season at Delaware Park, where the 22-year-old native of Morristown, N.J. won the leading rider championship at the prestigious mid-Atlantic meeting,

“I had a very good summer there,” said Napravnik Friday, “and I decided to try a bigger meeting this winter. That’s why I made the decision to try Fair Grounds. This is a very tough riding colony down here and I wanted to test myself against the jockeys here and see how well I fit in. So far, that aspect of the decision to come here has been good. I’ve won four races already and had two winners yesterday (Thursday),”

After beginning her riding career in 2005 and winning with her first mount on a horse named Ringofdiamonds, Napravnik kept her momentum going by earning leading rider honors at all the Maryland meetings of 2006 and was also runner-up in the Eclipse Awards for leading apprentice honors at the end of that year.

Napravnik accepted her first mount at Fair Grounds last season during a one-day visit on Feb. 8, and won that race astride Joseph Haddad’s Watz His Name for trainer Mike Stidham. This season she won the second half of the Daily Double on opening day aboard Valene Farm’s Buck’s Revenge for conditioner Sturges Ducoing, and on Saturday she will ride Augustin Stable’s Kitty Love in the 25th anniversary edition of the Pago Hop for her old mentor, Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

“I learned a lot from Jonathan when I first went to work for him on his farm,” said Napravnik, speaking of those summers when she was a young teenager almost 10 years ago. “He gave me a great education to start me off in my own career, and I rode a lot of horses for him last summer at Delaware and we had a lot of success together. I’m very grateful to him for all the help he has given me over the years.”

During last month’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill, Napravnik rode Forever Together to a dead-heat sixth-place finish in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf prior to that mare’s retirement, and  on the second day of the Breeders’ Cup she escaped serious injury when her mount – Jack Smith III Thoroughbreds’ Rough Sailing in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf – lost his footing, slipped and fell.

“He just slipped and fell when his feet went out from under him on that slippery wet grass,” said Napravnik of the unfortunate happening in the midst of Thoroughbred racing’s showcase afternoon.

LTBA SCHOLARSHIP GIVEAWAY ON DEC. 11 – The Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association (LTBA) has announced that it will offer four $1,000 scholarship giveaways to be awarded at Fair Grounds Race Course on Dec. 11 after the fifth race of that afternoon. Students must register for the drawing between 11:40 p.m. and 12:40 p.m. near the paddock on that day to be eligible.