His excitement as a result of Forever Together's stirring win in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf (gr. IT) gave trainer Jonathan Sheppard fits of insomnia. But by all indications, the Hall of Fame trainer is taking things in better stride as his fierce gray mare defends her title as the morning line choice in the $2 million event at Santa Anita Nov. 6.
Win or lose, this is expected to be the final race of the 5-year-old Forever Together's career. The lifetime owner of more than $2.6 million is to join owner George Strawbridge Jr.'s broodmare string in Chester County, Pa.
"I'm going to miss her," Sheppard says. "I have mixed emotions when I even look at her, because I know I'm running (her) on borrowed time. She's been a big part of my life for the last three years."
The 68-year-old Sheppard scored the biggest win of his career at Santa Anita last year when Forever Together stormed from off the pace to win by three parts of a length. Her critics perceive that she hasn't been quite as sharp heading into this year's 1 1/4-mile race, in which she faces seven rivals, three of whom she defeated in the 2008 Filly & Mare Turf. As far as Sheppard is concerned, though, the Kentucky-bred daughter of Belong to Me is as good as ever.
"Well, I know that it's easy to pick holes in her record this year," the native of Ashwell, England, said during a press conference on Nov. 5. "We're not overly confident, but we are coming into the race with great hope."
The mare is aptly named since Sheppard and Strawbridge have worked with each other since Sheppard obtained his training license in 1966, beginning with steeplechase horses. But Forever Together, who has won two of five starts and $600,106 this season, is a rarity for Strawbridge, who did not breed her. Instead he purchased her for $240,000 at the 2006 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. March 2-year-olds in training sale.
On a cool, slightly foggy morning at Santa Anita, Sheppard talked about his champion mare while a groom and his wife, Cathy, took turns walking her around her temporary barn area nearby.
"We haven't done much with her," he said, since she arrived at Santa Anita Nov. 2, a day after breezing her at Keeneland. "She's been galloping around the training track twice (about 1 1/4 miles) for the past three days. We're very happy with her. She doesn't like the hot weather so I'm happy it's been cooler than last year, when the temperature was in the mid-80s for the race. It isn't supposed to get nearly as warm this weekend."
Besides the heat, concern last year surrounded Forever Together's lack of experience going 10 furlongs. Out of the Relaunch mare Constant Companion, she proved that was not an issue by closing powerfully into slow fractions as the 9-2 third choice, then holding off the outsider Sealy Hill in the stretch.
She hasn't been the distance since and is coming off a third-place finish in Keeneland's one-mile First Lady (gr. IT) over a soft turf Oct. 10, a race in which she made up nearly 20 lengths in the final four furlongs. But she could make up little ground on the victorious Diamondrella in the lane, losing by 1 1/2 lengths.
"We're just lucky we aren't going to face her again," he said in reference to Diamondrella, who is headed for the BC Turf Sprint (gr. I) on Nov. 7 instead.
Sheppard is again looking at a field that doesn't figure to have much pace. The conditioner is making one concession on that front. He hopes that regular jockey Julien Leparoux will keep Forever Together closer to the lead this time after settling to the inside from post 2.
"I don't look at the competition that much, other than to see who is likely to set the pace," he says. "It's something that we have no control over. But I'd prefer that she not have to come from too far away."
Of Leparoux, who has ridden Forever Together in her past nine races, Sheppard says, "We've had a very good association. I liked his style, he's got a good seat on a horse and nice hands. When Ramon Dominguez couldn't ride her (in last year's Diana), he replaced him and won. He's very poised. If I have a criticism, it's that sometimes I wish he could have a little more larceny in his heart."
After winning Keenland's Jenny Wiley (gr. IIT) in April to begin her 2009 season, Forever Together has followed exactly the same path to this year's Breeders' Cup.
"It worked for us last year and I saw no reason to change it," Sheppard explained. "We wanted a plan that would bring her up to this race in the best shape possible."
Forever Together repeated in Saratoga's Diana (gr. IT) Aug. 1 over a good track to earn an automatic berth. She owns a 9-3-4 mark in 19 career starts, including four grade I victories.
Breeders' Cup weekend, incidentally, could be extremely lucrative for the 72-year-old Strawbridge, who also starts Informed Decision with Sheppard in the Filly and Mare Sprint. In addition, he runs the John Gosden-trained filly Rainbow Viewin the Ladies' Classic (gr. I), and Smart Seattle in the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Zilva in the Grey Goose Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), both saddled by Graham Motion.