When Lisa Sheppard answered my call on Sunday afternoon (September 2) she was still half an hour south of Port Macquarie. Twenty four hours earlier, she had lived the dream of all country trainers by winning the TAB Highway, with her very first starter at Royal Randwick. “Not only was it my very first time with a runner, but only the second time in my life I’d set foot on Randwick Racecourse” exclaimed Lisa.
Many country trainers who travel horses to Sydney for the Highway races, like to get the hell out of the “big smoke” as quickly as they can.
“I decided to stay the night with my two horses, thanks to the generosity of Pat Webster who made a couple of boxes available”, said Lisa. “I thought “Ray”, as she calls Gordon’s Leap, deserved a quiet night before tackling the 315 km trip back to Port Macquarie”.
The unassuming little horse who accompanied “Ray” to Sydney, is an eleven year old standardbred gelding known as “Will”. Under the name of John Street Blue, he had an undistinguished racing career, earning just $2090 from three minor placings in a twenty one start career.
But as travelling companion and mascot for big “Ray”, he stands as tall as Paleface Adios.
“Gordon’s Leap has been a dreadful traveller, and injured himself pretty seriously in a float mishap a couple of years ago”, recalled Lisa. “I was pretty nervous travelling through all that traffic on Saturday, but with Will’s reassurance he was all but perfect”.
Lisa Sheppard grew up in the Bankstown area, and developed a love of horses in her teenage years. She bought a couple of failed racehorses at the Inglis Mixed Sale, and became a familiar figure riding her thoroughbreds around the neighbourhood.
She was fortunate to meet two veteran horsemen, who taught her finer points of horse management that she observes to this day. One of her tutors was Charlie Parsons, a master horseman who trained the odd galloper, but was best known as the trainer and driver of the 1972 Miracle Mile winner, Bay Foyle.
The other was J.J. “Jack” Hansell, who had the distinction of training a horse called Strength to win the 1931 AJC Metropolitan. The colours carried by Gordon’s Leap on Saturday (Royal Blue, Green Sash, Red Cap) were colours given to Lisa by Jack Hansell many years ago.
It wasn’t until the mid 1980’s that Lisa took out her own trainer’s licence, and she was lucky to find accommodation for her small team at the Warwick Farm stables owned by the late Basil Andrews, just around the corner from the Sunnybrook Hotel. Andrews had been a small team trainer, with an imposing record of successful betting plunges.
He was retired when Lisa occupied the stables, but took a keen interest in her horses and offered valuable advice, as did Jack Hansell who visited regularly. “I was so lucky to have access to the knowledge of these old time horsemen, and I listened to everything they had to say”, reflected Lisa.
She enjoyed moderate success in her first decade as a trainer, but opted to relinquish her licence, when she and husband Nick decided to start a family. They’re the proud parents of Lance Sheppard, former racing NSW assistant starter, and currently Clerk Of The Course at Hawkesbury race meetings. Younger son Darby hasn’t inherited Mum’s obsession with horses, and works in his Dad’s mechanical workshop at Bowral.
Lisa attended the 2010 Inglis Easter broodmare sale, with no intention of going home with a horse. “A big black mare sauntered into the ring offered by Emirates Stud, and caught my eye instantly”, recalled the trainer. “Her name was Parsa, she was seventeen and not in foal. She was by Risen Star (by Secretariat), out of Pallanza (by Lyphard). She had raced exclusively in England, winning only one race in seventeen starts”.
Ten minutes and $1000 later, Lisa was organizing transport to get Parsa to her Bowral property. There was relief all round when the American mare returned a positive test to Where’s That Tiger (USA). A filly foal followed to be named Thurso, which Lisa gave to Graeme Spackman to train. Six starts for six “shockers”, and that filly is now seven years old, pottering around a paddock at Bowral.
Next consort for Parsa was Savabeel’s half-brother Arlington, and that resulted in a big, leggy colt foal which was clearly going to take a lot of time. Lisa, by this stage had renewed her trainer’s licence after an absence of eighteen years. She was based at Bowral, and was using the Goulburn track as her fast work venue.
She eventually named the gangly colt Gordon’s Leap, and that warrants a quick trip into Australian history. Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870), was born in Portugal but immigrated to Australia in 1853. He went on to become a celebrated poet, police officer, politician and jockey.
Testimony to his skills as a horseman, was his fabled riding feat near Mount Gambier in 1864. He was credited with jumping a horse over a post and rail fence, onto a narrow ledge overlooking a frightening descent to the Blue Lake below, before jumping back again onto the roadway. This daring stunt became known as Gordon’s Leap, and today, a towering obelisk is situated somewhere near the location of the legendary ride.
The gangly Arlington gelding gave his trainer many anxious moments during his formative years. “He was terrified of anything he hadn’t seen before, and would jump clean over the top of you if spooked”, said Lisa this week. “He charged out of a sandroll one day and flattened my husband Nick, who sustained a fractured cheek bone”, recalled Lisa. “The horse was a terrible traveller, and gave me a hell of a scare travelling home from the Goulburn track one morning. He got down in the float, and in trying to get up, he lifted two dividers off their anchors. By the time I stopped and opened the tailgate, he was standing on top of the dividers, sweating profusely and trembling with fear. A couple of workers from a nearby quarry helped me to sort out the mess, and somehow I got him home. He lost a lot of skin, and his hind legs were badly swollen. I put him away for three months in the hope he’d forget all about it”.
Former jockey Teresa Capes gave Lisa wonderful support in getting “Ray” over his demons. At first he refused to go anywhere near the starting stalls at the Goulburn track, but Teresa took him step by step, and with tremendous patience finally got him to walk straight into the gates. There’s little doubt a trainer of lesser patience would have given up on Gordon’s Leap. Lisa knew he had a “motor”, and was determined to give him the chance to prove it.
“Ray” was an early four year old when he made his debut in the spring of 2017. “Somebody made the mistake of grabbing one of his ears in the starting gates, sending him right off”, said Lisa.” He was a late scratching, and it was back to the drawing board”. Soon after he got a clearance at the trials, and he was off to the races again”.
Forgot to mention the big boy stood exactly seventeen hands at this stage of his life, and there was no spare room in his stall when Winona Costin took him into the gates for his debut at Canterbury (17/11/17). He was last throughout in a six horse field, but Lisa was thrilled with his manners, and on that note she put him away.
Six and a half months later he charged home from the tail of the field to win a 1255 metre Maiden at Taree with Chad Lever up. Six days later he ran a satisfactory fourth in a Port Macquarie C2, followed by a strong win in a 1400 metre C1 at Grafton during the July carnival, with Andrew Gibbons up. Then followed a pleasing third in a C2 at Coffs Harbour, and his record stood at five starts for two wins and a placing, coming from a mile back on each occasion.
Lisa knew she was raising the bar in going to a TAB Highway at Randwick, but what the heck! - it was time to test the water. With Andrew Gibbons required for several Kris Lees runners at the Hawkesbury meeting, Jay Ford was the lucky jockey to pick up the ride on this big, green improving visitor from Port Macquarie.
He walked out of the gates, and settled down in front of a couple in the thirteen horse field. You can see he’s just following the pack at the moment. Jay did a super job to find him some sort of a split inside the 200 metres, but the big fella had a good look at it. It wasn’t until he got his gangly frame into a bit of space that his instinct “kicked in”. He really surged the last 100 metres, and was a pretty convincing winner.
Lisa probably can’t remember those first few minutes after she saw his number in the frame. Flanked by friends and well-wishers, the horse loving mother of two was swamped by the emotions that accompany such a surreal experience. Her boy had caused her a lot of heartache and a few frightening moments, on his way to the Royal Randwick winner’s circle, but all was forgiven.
Many trainers would be sorely tempted to push on with such a lightly raced horse, but this trainer couldn’t get her horse into the paddock quickly enough. “I want him to go out with a pleasant experience behind him”, said Lisa on Monday. “His head still isn’t in the right place, and look at the size of the big brute”.
Lisa’s extraordinary patience is the prime reason this horse has come so far, and her decision to give him even more time has to be respected.
While Gordon’s Leap is spelling, trainer Sheppard will concentrate on another five or six horses she has in the stable. She’s fortunate to have the loyal support of track rider Joel Chevalley, and breaker Adam Hrncir whose contribution to the education of Gordon’s Leap has been significant. Another valued hand in the Sheppard stable is former jockey Chris Agland, who has worked in recent years for both Peter Snowden and Chris Waller.
And what of poor old Parsa. Her stylish bloodline was overlooked when she made only $1000 in the Newmarket sale ring eight years ago. Gordon’s Leap is her last foal, and her only winner. The American bred matron died on Lisa’s Bowral property, not long after the Arlington colt was weaned.
Arlington is owned by racing legend Bruce McHugh, who stands the well credentialed stallion at his Tamalee Stud near Tamworth. You can’t help but wonder if Arlington has “clicked” with the genes of Parsa’s fashionable forebears. After all his dam is by Risen Star, runner up in the Kentucky Derby, and winner of the Preakness and Belmont. And of course a smattering of Risen Star’s sire Secretariat hasn’t done any harm. But that’s what thoroughbred genetics are all about. You just never know.