A few days after the death announcement of four-time champion steeplechase horse Flatterer, co-breeder and trainer Jonathan Sheppard reflected on the life of one of the greatest horses with which he has ever been associated.
"It was a magical ride...you kind of take it for granted while it's happening, and then when it's over...as more time goes by, the more you appreciate how amazing it was," said Sheppard, a Hall of Fame Steeplechase trainer. "He was exceptional. You know you were a part of something special while it was happening."
One of the most intriguing aspects about Flatterer's story is how Sheppard came to own his dam, Horizontal. The trainer had originally acquired the Nade mare along with several others on behalf of a client, but at the last minute, the client changed his mind about the purchase.
"I took a liking to Flatterer's dam and ended up buying her myself," said Sheppard, who partnered with longtime client Bill Pape on the mare. "She won a few little races, and then we bred her."
Sheppard and Pape bred Horizontal to Mo Bay due to the fact Sheppard had trained the stallion, a winner of 10 stakes in five seasons of racing for owner George Strawbridge.
"Mr. Strawbridge let me send two mares to (Mo Bay) each year for free," Sheppard explained. "So we sent her over to him, and Flatterer was her fourth foal."
Flatterer went on to compile an extraordinary record of 24-8-5 from 52 starts for Pape. At 4, he became the first Steeplechase Triple Crown winner by sweeping the 1983 American Grand National, Temple Gwathmey, and Colonial Cup, en route to earning the first of his series of four consecutive Eclipse Awards.
In 1986, Flatterer achieved another career highlight when he established a new American weight-carrying record of 176 pounds when romping to a convincing victory in the National Hunt Cup.
"It's almost unbelievable; they would never give a horse that much weight now," said Sheppard, who often exercised Flatterer himself in the mornings. "(Riding him) made me have a little extra affinity for him I suppose--just being that close to the horse."
Sheppard visited Flatterer many times throughout his retirement at Pape's My Way Farm near Unionville, Pa. "I would stop in three or four times a year and give him some sugar cubes," said Sheppard. "We had a party for him on his birthday last year in June (when he turned 35), and then I saw him again in the fall."
In March, Pape notified Sheppard that Flatterer's health had sharply declined.
"He said we needed to make a decision soon," Sheppard said. "That was about two weeks before we mustered up the courage to (euthanize him). He was still walking around in his field with his female companion, but he'd lost an awful lot of weight and muscle tone. He was also walking a little wobbly, which scared me and made me think he might go down and not be able to get back up."
In the end, Sheppard and Pape decided euthanize Flatterer, as well as his longtime pasture mate My Tombola, due to the infirmities of old age. My Tombola earned more than $100,000 on the track and produced multiple stakes winner Divine Fortune for Pape and Sheppard.
"You can't really regret it...how can you ask a horse to live any longer than that?" Sheppard said. "Flatterer's age is a great tribute to the horse. I think his tremendous heart and some of the other qualities that made him such a great racehorse enabled him to live such a long life.
"He was a class act and he lived his life with dignity right up until the end."