In many ways, 2009 has been one of the hallmark seasons of Jonathan Sheppard's career.
Not only does the Hall of Fame trainer have three Grade I winners in his barn, but his relationship with his stable's reigning queen has never been better.
A year ago, Sheppard pulled off one of the best accomplishments of his career when he morphed a sour filly named Forever Together into the champion turf female for owner George Strawbridge.
The 5-year-old Forever Together has retained that top form this season and will be the even-money morning-line favorite to defend her title in Saturday's Grade I First Lady Stakes over a mile on the turf at Keeneland.
Forever Together's 2008 season culminated with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf — a feat Sheppard hopes she can repeat this year — but that journey was not without drama.
Despite being a graded-stakes winner on dirt, Forever Together had become a nervous, unhappy horse during her 3-year-old season, losing five straight races at one point.
Since Sheppard switched Forever Together to the turf last May and gave her Guinness to help with her non-sweating problem, the gray mare has been much more agreeable.
"Starting out this year we already knew what we had with her whereas last year we were sort of taking it a race at a time ... and I think it's certainly made my job easier training her," said Sheppard, who will also saddle Grade I winner Informed Decision in Saturday's Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes. "I think we have both gotten to know each other a little bit better. She is definitely much easier to train this year than she was last year and certainly the year before."
Since last year's formula proved so successful, Sheppard has carved out a near-identical path for the late-running mare this season.
After winning the Grade II Jenny Wiley Stakes at Keeneland in April, Forever Together ran second to fellow First Lady rival Diamondrella in the Grade I Just a Game Stakes in June — a race she also lost in 2008 — before winning the Grade I Diana Stakes for a second straight year and running second in the Grade II Canadian Stakes, also for a second consecutive season.
"Her record would indicate that she's about exactly where she was at this point last year," Sheppard said. "We gave her the winter off, which I think really helps because ... you can't keep grinding them out indefinitely every month, 12 months out of every year, three or four years in a row, obviously."
In addition to having to overcome Diamondrella again, Forever Together could face a softer turf should it rain Friday and Saturday.
Her affinity for the Keeneland surface, however, could make all those challenges a moot point. During her victory in the Jenny Wiley, Forever Together was still able to close over a turf rated good despite the leaders setting a pedestrian first half of :51.83.
"She's the type of horse that switches off really well for her rider and just kind of lopes along until he asks her to run," Sheppard said. "I think she seems very sound, and seems very happy."