After steeplechaser Sermon of Love won the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes and New York Turf Writers Cup-G1 in 2010, trainer Jonathan Sheppard casually told the press, “He seems to like Saratoga.”
But as Sheppard’s former long-tenured assistant Jim Bergen remembered, the Turf Writers was “touch and go” for Sermon of Love and stablemate Arcadius. Sheppard was in New York with his string for the Saratoga meet but opted to leave the veterans at Ashwell Stables in Pennsylvania for their final work.
“I think he was a bit nervous about it in that he couldn’t be there for the work in the Hundred Acre Field,” Bergen said of a well-known Sheppard training ground. “Frank Steall set the pace on Sermon and Brian Crowley was on Arcadius. They worked perfectly and, more importantly, were sound the following day.”
Bergen shipped the geldings back to Saratoga’s storied Oklahoma Annex for the 23⁄8-mile race Aug. 26.
“They ran one/two with Crowley on Sermon,” said Bergen of a sweep over eventual Eclipse Award winner Slip Away and future champion Divine Fortune. “It was pretty gratifying.”
Sermon of Love began his career as a 3-year-old in 2006. Bred in Kentucky by Pennsylvanian F. Eugene Dixon Jr., the son of Pulpit and the Ascot Knight mare Plenty of Sugar made four winless starts on the flat before switching to hurdles for Jack Fisher (with Dixon’s wife Edie the owner) that October. He won his third start, the Raymond G. Woolfe Memorial on the Colonial Cup card at Camden, S.C.
In a steeplechase rarity, he changed hands in the auction ring as Danny Pate paid $62,000 for the 4-year-old at Keeneland January. Pate thought about keeping the horse, but an offer from Sheppard owner Calvin Houghland sent Sermon of Love from one powerhouse steeplechase barn to another.
“He came pretty highly touted,” Bergen said. “But he wasn’t particularly easy to ride. If something caught his eye, he’d drop you like third period French.”
The purchase didn’t pay immediate dividends as Sermon of Love lost 15 consecutive races – but placed in three stakes – through May 2009. His first win for Houghland came at Penn National in an allowance over hurdles July 3, 2009, followed a month later by a maiden win on the flat at Saratoga to help jockey Danielle Hodsdon complete a rare double of winning a flat race and a jump race at the meet.
When Houghland passed away at 93 that fall, Bill Pape purchased Sermon of Love. Sermon of Love came to form at Saratoga the next summer, and won the two stakes. Sheppard was right, the horse really did like the Spa with three of his five wins (plus a second and two thirds) coming at the historic track. Pulled up in his 42nd and final start there in 2012, he retired with $290,351 earned.
And found his person. Mel Williams regularly rode Sermon of Love at Ashwell, and came to mind quickly when Pape and Sheppard considered retirement options.
“He was one of my favorites,” Williams said. “I broke my leg badly in 2010, and he was one of the first horses I got back riding and breezing. He’s a little quirky – they used to call him ‘Squirmin Sermon.’ Jogging roads with him, you had to be very patient. But he was always a cool dude.”
Recognizing Williams’ rapport with the horse, Sheppard provided opportunities – they won a flat race at the Queen’s Cup in 2009 and were third in a 3-mile amateur hurdle at the Iroquois a few weeks later.
“It was really boggy and I probably didn’t give him the best ride,” Williams said of the latter, “but he stuck it out to the end, and we picked up a check. It came to be that he wasn’t competing at the same level, and he had a slight injury in the right hind. Jonathan knew that I loved him and wanted him to have a good home.”
She gave him six months off and then put him back to work. And there’s very little he hasn’t done in the past nine years – foxhunting, team chases, hunter trials, timber and cross-country schooling.
Now the Fair Hill Training Center assistant to trainer Mike Trombetta, Williams and her husband, jockey Jhonatan Mendoza, are new parents to son Denny, born last fall. Her mother, Sharon Smiley, happily filled in and kept Sermon of Love active during the pregnancy. Williams boards the horse at Breezewood, a farm just a few miles from Fair Hill. The property backs up to Fair Hill’s cross-country course, offering miles of trails.
“Whenever they have schooling at Fair Hill, I just hack right through the woods,” Williams said. “The horses thrive here. He lives off of grass, they cut their own hay, he gets a couple scoops of pelleted feed a day. He likes to be by himself. He gets a little on the muscle when he’s in company. But he’s mellowed.”
“Somewhat!” Smiley chimed in, laughing. “Well, I’m 70 and sometimes I get on him and I say why am I on this horse? But he takes good care of me; he’s very surefooted and he’s got a lovely mouth. You ride him with a light hand. He’s great on the trail; he moves out. He’s kind of like a sports car – very sensitive controls.”
The 19-year-old munched grass at the end of a shank as Williams and Smiley talked about him.
“When things quiet down a bit,” Williams said, “I’d like to get back on him more myself. I’ve just had fun with him. He’s still such a cool dude.” “Most importantly,” Bergen said, “Mel Williams loved him and gave him a great life. That’s probably the best part of this story.”