Saratoga: May It Be Ever Thus

2016-09-05-06-22-46-1The final first of Saratoga 2016 was not one that we looked forward to.

This summer, we celebrated pinhooker Andrew Motion’s first Saratoga yearling sale, and trainer Ray Handal’s first Saratoga win, and trainer Lacey Gaudet’s first Saratoga starter.

And then we waited. Not for a first, but for a next, to see if trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s 46-year winning streak at the Spa would remain intact.

The English trainer with a Pennsylvania farm had won at Saratoga every year since 1969. In a 2010 conversation with me, he wondered whether his was the longest extant streak, and in the six years since it was publicized, his record has attracted attention every summer, with fans and reporters on Sheppard watch from opening day.

He has admitted that he feels pressure to keep the streak going, a feeling that is in conflict with the reduction in his stable and the number of horses that he starts. Sheppard horses ran 14 times at Saratoga this year, down by 50% over the last two years, 29 last year, 35 in 2014. There were fewer steeplechase races at Saratoga this year, too, and Sheppard didn’t have a runner in this year’s New York Turf Writers’ Cup (gr. I), a race that he’s won 14 times, and in which he’s had a runner every year going back to at least 1988, and probably further.

He kept our hope alive until the very last race on the very last day, his final start of the meet coming in the 11th race on closing day. War Baby finished seventh, and in front of a nearly empty grandstand as dusk descended, Sheppard was gracious enough to talk to reporters in the winner’s circle, as an era came to an end.

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