By Terry Conway
Consider it the gold standard in the lineage of steeplechase trainers: Burley Cocks to Jonathan Sheppard to Janet Elliot.
In August Elliot joined two other renowned Chester County jump trainers in the sport's most elite club, the Racing Hall of Fame. After nearly six decades of voting, Elliot also became the first female trainer inductee. Sheppard, her mentor, presented her with the Hall of Fame plaque in a ceremony held at the Humphrey S. Finney Sales Pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N. Y.
"It came as a huge surprise, not in my wildest dreams," confessed Elliot. "Never, ever, ever. Who would have guessed it?"
Not so fast. In 1997 the racingmagazine Spur published a list of the 100 most influential people in the equine industry that included Elliot. Her horses have led the National Steeplechase Association's annual earnings list six times. Elliot has saddled three Eclipse Award winners, including Irish-bred Corregio in 1996, and Flat Top, who was the best in the country in 1998 and 2002.
"Flat Top came to us from one of my former employees who was working in flat racing," Elliot recalled from her Woodville Farm in Kirkwood, Pa. "At the track he was a terrible box walker and had big respiratory problems. He came alive here. He really took to the sport, loved jumping. As he got older his mind got very settled as well. Flat Top was a very special horse."
Under her tutelage, Census won the inaugural Breeders' Cup Steeplechase in 1986 on a brilliant late October afternoon at the Fair Hill Racecourse in northern Maryland. A smallish chestnut with a huge blaze, Elliot remembers him jumping like a kangaroo.
"With a mile to go, he jumped his way to the front and he never missed a fence," she recalled. "It was just awesome."
Five years later Elliot became the first woman to win a National Steeplechase Association trainer championship – bringing to an end Sheppard's streak of 18 consecutive titles. The Elliot trainee Victorian Hill supplanted Sheppard's superstar Flatterer atop the NSA earnings list in 1991, and would stay there until 1997. Victorian Hill was far from the typical steeplechase runner who sat fourth or fifth, then making a late run.
"We tried that early in his career but he was always fighting the rider," said Elliot. "We finally just let him go to the lead and he really thrived under that style."
A medical marvel, Victorian Hill suffered a nearly fatal colic attack in 1991. Half of his colon (seven feet) was removed and he lost 300 pounds. Owner William Lickle was told he would never race again. But the seven-year old came back in the following spring and won the $100,000 Iroquois Handicap in his third start over the fences.
Victorian Hill excelled at running downhill and his superb jumping allowed him to hold off rivals at the end of races. A Hall of Fame inductee, he won stakes in six different seasons and retired with 18 wins from 68 starts and $754,540 in earnings. Three years ago another horse kicked the 21-year-old gelding while in a field and Victorian Hill suffered a shattered right hind leg and was euthanized.
"We all felt like we've lost a special friend," Elliot said.
Elliot's horses have won the Colonial Cup, Grand National and Temple Gwathmey five times apiece. Her runners have won such prestigious jumping events as the Carolina Cup, Georgia Cup, Iroquois, National Hunt Cup, New York Turf Writers Cup, and the A.P. Smithwick Memorial. Elliot's lifetime earnings stand at more than $7.6 million – trailing only Sheppard and Jack Fisher. Her lifetime total of 361 National Steeplechase Association wins through the end of August ranks among the best.
Her father was a British army officer who served in India, where he rode and hunted. The year Janet was born he retired to County Cork, Ireland. She got her first pony at age seven.
"He pulled a cart with a creamery churn in the back," Elliot recalled with a wide smile. "I loved all animals but horses were my passion. I had no idea it would be my life."
After completing school, Elliot enrolled in the Burton Hall riding academy run by Col. Hume Dudgeon. Later she became an instructor. Elliot came to the United States in 1968 when her spot as a groom for the Irish Olympic show jumping team at the Mexico Olympics fell through. She traveled to Pennsylvania and hooked up with legendary horsewoman Betty Bird in Unionville where she worked with a string of very nice hunters, show-jumpers and racehorses.
Supposed to start work with trainer Cocks, the job was scrubbed when Elliot broke her collarbone and damaged her knee in a car accident. In the spring of 1969 she landed a job as a babysitter for Sheppard and his first wife. She moved in with the couple and started working with his horses.
"It was a very small operation and Jonathan was very hands-on," Elliot said. "I probably learned a lot more than people would today. He was always up to something and didn't travel so much then."
Sheppard's training style revolves around patience and developing a positive state of mind, so that his horses are relaxed, more manageable. Young horses aren't pressed to excel before they are strong enough to handle the physical and mental rigors of racing. Elliot stayed 1o years, soaking up everything she could.
"Jonathan taught me everything," Elliot related. "He has the inner sense about his horses, and knows how to read them and keep them fit and happy. I remember how he worked with Ink Slinger who had a tendon problem. Jonathan had in his mind he was going to be a good three-year old, so he just persevered with the horse. Ink went on to win six races. That really impressed me."
"I try to monitor my horses' soundness very closely. Like Jonathan I've always ridden my horses, so that gives me a good sense. I examine their legs each day. But you need to pay close attention, not be talking when you do it. If I see a warning sign then I back off (training) and try to stay ahead of the issue."
Her 10-year tenure at Ashwell Stable was marked by dozens of top horses. Athenian Idol, Cafe Prince, Leaping Frog, Gado, Malbrouck, Ghost Charger, Michael's Mad and Case Dismissed, they all came her way.
In 1979, Elliot was contacted about training Mr. and Mrs. Henry Elsner's three-year old colt Too Few Stripes.
"I work for Jonathan, I can't do that," Elliot recalled. "Turns out the Elsners had already talked to Jonathan and he thought it was time for me to fly the nest. It was a huge step and I wasn't full of confidence. It was not just a job; they were my family. Jonathan said, ‘give it a try, you can always come back.'"
George Strawbridge, Jr. helped Elliot buy a 2o-acre farm and within seven years she was training a Breeders' Cup Steeplechase champion. When much of the property where she trains was sold recently, Elliot scaled back her stable to around ten horses. These days her training regimen is more complicated. She needs to ship a horse to the track or over to the Fair Hill Training Center to get a good workout. Elliot spends more time in South Carolina in the winter-- arriving earlier and staying later.
Forty years have flown by.
"There have been so many wonderful people," she said. "It just goes to show you how lucky you can be if people help you along the way."
To contact horseracing writer Terry Conway email, Conway@dol.net