Owner George MaHoney. Photo by Todd Marks/National Steeplechase Association.
Last year’s race for the top steeplechase owner was a runaway. Leading the list by a wide margin was Rosbrian Farm, which earned $712,050 from 54 starts. The runner-up, Irvin S. Naylor, brought in $451,250 in 100 starts.
George Mahoney, owner of Rosbrian, named his Glyndon, Md., farm after the Mahoney clan’s fortress in County Limerick, Ireland. He and his wife, Mandy, are partners in the enterprise.
Horses are in Mahoney’s blood. A longtime foxhunter, he rides with the Green Spring Valley Hounds. After many years in timber racing, he branched out to hurdles. It proved a sage decision.
The stable had 14 victories, including two Grade 1 wins: the $200,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois, the richest race on the spring schedule, and Belmont Park’s $175,000 Lonesome Glory Handicap. The spritely bay Zanjabeel, whose name is Arabic for the spice ginger, won both. The Irish-bred gelding is Rosbrian’s, in partnership with Meadow Run Farm, owned by the Mahoneys’ friends, Wendy and Ben Griswold. Rosbrian also logged six second-place finishes and five third-place finishes. Then a great year got even better.
Zanjabeel was honored with the 2018 Eclipse Award as outstanding steeplechase horse. The presentation was made at the annual awards dinner at Florida’s Gulfstream Park in January. “I am very blessed to have these horses and the team that has surrounded me all year, through the hot days, the cold days and the rainy days,” says Mahoney.
The North American championship award is determined by a pool of voters that includes the National Thoroughbred Racing Association racing secretaries, Daily Racing Form editorial employees, and members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters. Other finalists were Rosbrian’s Optimus Prime, also trained by Zanjabeel’s trainer, Ricky Hendriks, and winner of Saratoga Race Course’s $175,000 New York Turf Writers Cup; and $450,000 Grand National victor Jury Duty, who was the year’s leading earner. “Ricky was a very able jockey in his own right and has been training horses for many years,” Mahoney says. “I have the highest regard for him.”
In a stellar year, Mahoney watched three of his horses compete to pass the finish line first in a Grade 1 race. “Talk about anxiety attacks,” he said in an interview with This Is Horse Racing. “Stressful—the anxiety is off the charts. You’re not rooting for or against any of them, so it can be a little bit hard to watch—just like you’re not rooting against your children if they’re on the same team. It’s a good problem to have three Grade 1 horses, and I don’t want to sound boastful about that. They have to run against each other.”
In his native Ireland, jump jockey Jack Kennedy rode Zanjabeel a number of times. One of those ended in a painful 48-length defeat at Punchestown in County Kildare in November 2016. After coming to America, fortunes improved for both horse and rider. Kennedy and Zanjabeel bettered their record to two-for-two over hurdles in the U.S., galloping away with the $175,000 Lonesome Glory Handicap at Belmont Park, putting them on the path to the Eclipse.
National Steeplechase Association Champion Jockey Darren Nagle. Photo by Todd Marks/National Steeplechase Association.
Darren Nagle is riding tall in the saddle. For the second year running, he is the champion jockey, an honor bestowed to the top rider based on the number of wins.
Nagle had 17 victories in 2018, coming on strong in the fall. Jack Doyle, who led the standings for much of the year, finished second in the rankings with 16 wins.
In 2018, Nagle won 20 percent of the times he got in the saddle. In addition to his 16 first-place finishes, he placed nine times and showed eight times. His mounts won $548,800 that year. Overall, of 728 starts, his mounts have tallied 122 firsts, 94 seconds and 94 thirds for earnings of $4.05 million. These numbers are according to Equibase, a database of racing information and statistics.
The Ireland native was born to the saddle. He hails from a horse family, Scarteen Stud House, nestled in the lush and rolling countryside in Mallow, a town of 12,000. He began riding as a boy with the Duhallow Hunt and spent time at the yard in Killavullen run by his uncle, a trainer.
Nagle found foxhunting exhilarating. “The pony couldn’t go fast enough, or I couldn’t find a big enough hedge for him to jump,” he recalled in an interview for the Horse Racing Radio Network.
He moved to the United States in 2005 at age 18, “with not much money, not much of anything.” After riding briefly as an amateur, he went professional. He soon met with success, logging his first win on Run Up the Flag at the Middleburg Spring Races in Virginia.
Nagle had a spectacular season in 2017, winning 19 races and his first NSA jockey championship title. “That is something I’m very proud of,” he told readers back home in The Corkman, based in County Cork. “Anybody can have a good year, or anybody can win a big race on a good horse. But to ride a lot of winners like that, you need to be good or consistent, or whatever you want to call it, over a period of time. I am very proud of that.”
It’s an intensely demanding sport. Jockeys intent on whittling away pounds sometimes develop popping ears and leg cramps. At 6 feet tall, Nagle sometimes struggles to keep his weight under 150 pounds. That said, he views strength and fitness as a distinct competitive advantage, as well as a hedge against injury.
A key to his success is keeping it all in perspective. “I get disillusioned with the whole thing from time to time,” he said in the Saratoga Special. “Instead of quitting you’ve got to find the right balance for yourself, you know what I mean? People can judge you whatever way they want, but if you’re not happy doing something, you’ve got to make it right for yourself—or else you’re never going to succeed in anything.”
Trainer Janet Elliot. Photo by Todd Marks/National Steeplechase Association.
Steeplechasing has been a passion for Janet Elliot since she was a girl with a pony. “I was brought up with it in Ireland, where steeplechasing is very big, and we often went to point-to-point races,” she says.
Fast forward to 1968. Elliot was looking forward to coming to the United States. She had been recruited to look after an Irish horse, who was bound for the Olympics in Mexico City. Ultimately, the horse didn’t cross the Atlantic. But Elliot did, taking a job in Pennsylvania with Jonathan Sheppard, a trainer who was just beginning to rise in the ranks.
Elliot worked with Sheppard for 11 years, where her energy and love of horses served her well. Today, both are in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. “I was hard working from the beginning,” she says.
In 1979, Elliot struck out on her own. At the helm of her own stable, she joined the top ranks of trainers. In 1986, she hit a milestone, training Census, the first winner of the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase. She calls it a high point of her career, along with winning several Eclipse Awards. “It was at Fair Hill on the same day as the flat races cup,” she says. “He was a wonderful horse, and I feel very fortunate to have trained him.”
In 1991, Elliot bested Sheppard by two races, becoming the National Steeplechase Association’s champion trainer. She worked with the celebrated Victorian Hill, owned by Bill Lickle. She also trained Correggio, the Eclipse Award winner in 1996, and Flat Top, who won in 1998 and 2002.
In 2009, Elliot was elected to the Hall of Fame. The only other woman so honored was jockey Julie Krone. “It came as a huge surprise to me when I got the phone call,” Elliot recalls. “The day was wonderful, exciting. One of my owners organized a cocktail party, a great celebration.”
As a trainer, Elliot looks for horses that are physically and mentally suited to a demanding sport. “You need a horse that has athletic ability and is obviously sound,” she says. “His attitude means quite a bit to me, his disposition. You don’t want an animal that is fractious.”
Elliot looks for good owners, too. “If you don’t have owners who are prepared to support you in what you do, you can’t do your best job,” she says. “I’ve been extremely fortunate in having great owners. It’s part of why I’ve been successful.”
In 1997, Elliot created the Woodville Award, named for her farm in Lancaster, Pa. Each year, the Woodville honors workers who labor behind the scenes and personify the best in steeplechase racing. Her advice for aspiring trainers?
“It’s hard to make a good living, so you have to go into it for the love of horses, the love of the sport,” she says. “If it’s work that you truly love, it will make you happy.”
Doc Cebu and jockey Hadden Frost at the 2018 International Gold Cup. Photo by Todd Marks/National Steeplechase Association.
Like many steeplechase champions, Doc Cebu has had a bumpy gallop to the summit.
“He is quite well bred. As a two-year-old, he sold for $250,000,” says Charlie Fenwick, who owns Doc along with his partners in Bruton Street. “But he didn’t perform particularly well on the flats and traded hands in the claiming ranks.”
Fenwick bought Doc in the fall of 2015 for $10,000. “We ran him in Middleburg,” he recalls. “He’s a decent jumper and won a few races.”
Fenwick thought Doc might fare better on the timbers, racecourses that feature fixed, solid obstacles that must be jumped cleanly. In 2017, he made his timber debut and went on to win four races.
In 2018, Doc ran five times, with four wins and one third, making him Timber Horse of the Year. And Jack Fisher, Doc’s celebrated trainer, earned yet another title, that of trainer of the Timber Horse of the Year. “He is a natural horseman and loves the sport, as we do,” Fenwick says of Fisher.
Doc placed third in the $30,000 Middleburg Hunt Cup Stakes on April 21, won the $35,000 Willowdale Steeplechase Stakes on May 13, an allowance race at Shawan Downs on Sept. 29 and the $30,000 Geneseo Valley Hunt Cup Timber Stakes on Oct. 13. He followed all that with a victory at the $75,000 International Gold Cup Timber Stakes on Oct. 27, which put him over the top for Timber Horse of the Year.
Fisher has won trainer titles for the past six years. In 2018, he traded the lead with Ricky Hendriks, meet by meet, before coming out on top.
Not that long ago, Fenwick came close to selling Doc. He was on the block in 2016 at the steeplechase auction. The starting bid was $15,000, and no paddles went up for the big gelding. “We were the first horse in the ring. Nobody was warmed up and ready to go,” he recalls.
Fenwick was riding home to Maryland when he got a call from the auctioneer, asking him to bring back the horse. Angry and embarrassed, Fenwick refused. “The luckiest thing that happened to me was not having anybody bid on that horse,” he says.
Fenwick did sell an interest in the horse to his primary Bruton Street partners, Michael Hankin and Charles Noell. “We’re all interested in having part of a nice horse,” he says. “We’ve all known each other forever.”
The trio became racing partners in 2013. Each had traveled to England to attend Ascot to see the Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom run. “I was smuggled in the paddock at Ascot, and I see my friend Charlie Noell outside,” Fenwick recalls. “He’s bent out of shape that I’m in the paddock and he’s not.”
Noell and Fenwick got together with Hankin the next morning for breakfast at the Connaught Hotel. They named their partnership after Bruton Street, a byway near the hotel, where Hankin’s firm, Brown Advisory, operates its London office.
Doc still races in Fenwick’s name and his colors. The old rose and white were established by his grandfather, Howard Bruce, owner of Billy Barton, one of only two horses to finish the Grand National in 1929. (Bumped by a riderless horse in the homestretch, Billy Barton’s jockey fell off, remounted, and finished second, a feat that landed horse and rider on the cover of Time magazine.)
Billy Barton and Doc Cebu have a lot in common. Both have impressive bloodlines but soured on flat racing. Both trained at Pimlico, where Fenwick’s grandfather discovered Billy Barton. Ninety years later, Fenwick’s brother and his grandfather’s namesake, Howard Bruce Fenwick, found Doc.
The brothers both love foxhunting. Charlie Fenwick says his affection for the timbers is rooted in his boyhood. “I grew up next door to the Maryland Hunt Cup, and it was the first thing my brother Bruce and I learned about racing,” he says. “Timber racing is my first love.”
Now 8, Doc is a horse with a feisty personality. “Doc is one you have to watch very carefully. There’s not a gentle side to him,” Fenwick says. “He’s a character who acts like he will bite and kick you—and he probably would. He always has something to say.”
Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Photo by Todd Marks/National Steeplechase Association.
In his long and storied career, Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard has won more than 1,000 races and 3,000 flat races and trained two Breeders’ Cup winners and a Breeders’ Cup steeplechase champion. He also led all U.S. jump-racing trainers in earnings for 18 straight years (1973-1990), totaling more than $20 million in purses.
At 78, Sheppard still loves his work and has no plans to retire. “I feel fortunate in making a living doing something I would do as a hobby for free,” he says.
Last year, at the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association’s annual dinner at Hotel Hershey, Sheppard earned honors for breeding both the 2-Year-Old Filly Champion, Daisy, and Steeplechase Champion All the Way Jose. He was also honored with the presentation of the PHBA’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.
Raised in England, he came to the United States at 21 as a jockey. That was in 1961. As a trainer, he’s hands on, galloping horses well into his 60s. “I really enjoyed working horses, and I think it helped me to be a better trainer,” he says.
Janet Elliot, Sheppard’s one-time protégé and a Hall of Fame trainer herself, says Sheppard has a rare gift for listening to horses. “He has a dedication to his horses, a second sense about what the horses are capable of doing,” she says. “He lets the horses dictate how he would train them.”
To Sheppard, horses are creatures with distinct personalities. As with raising children, patience and kindness are essential. “I try to treat them all as individuals, rather than put them into a pre-arranged program,” he says. “To get the best of the horse, you have to bring out his best.”
Sheppard’s strategy includes not pushing horses when they’re too young and turning out mounts before races so they relax. He believes matching horses with other talented steeds brings out the best in both. “I teach them stamina, which is important if you’re going three miles over jumps,” he says. “Don’t go off too fast so you’ll save a little bit at a stretch.”
Each morning, he rises at 5 a.m. at his farm in Chester County, where a dairy barn built in the 1800s is now a stable for horses. “I don’t have an alarm clock,” he says. “I just wake up.”
He’s trained scores of great horses, including Hall of Famer Café Prince, two-time Colonial Cup winner and the Eclipse Award winner in 1977 and 1978; and Flatterer, another Hall of Famer and winner of four consecutive Colonial Cups and the 1986 Radnor National Hunt Cup under a record 176 pounds.
His longevity is reflected in his streak at Saratoga, scoring wins at the meeting for 47 consecutive years, a record unrivaled in American racing.
Sheppard’s breeding program ensures a steady supply of talent to guide to the winner’s circle. “As long as I have mares spinning them out, I will have horses to train,” he says.