Sheppard ran a horse at the Meadowlands on Oct. 31 and remained overnight at his apartment. He was driving to the farm the next morning when the car phone rang.
Sheppard's rule had not been broken. It indeed was a dire emergency, and the message could not have been much worse. Flatterer, a champion without equal in steeplechasing, would not stand on his left hind leg.
Of all days, it was not the time for Flatterer to turn up lame. On that cloudy but mild Nov. 1, Flatterer was to pass another milestone in a remarkable, record-breaking career that included the nation's steeplechase championship for three straight years.
On that day, Flatterer was to have cantered to the start of the first Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, at the Fair Hill Race Course in northern Maryland. In all likelihood, he would have displayed his usual brilliance and again proved that he is superior to any other steeplechaser in the United States.
But it was not to be. A moan rolled through the record throng at Fair Hill when it was announced that Flatterer had been scratched from the race. Census, a hard-running gelding trained in Lancaster County by Janet Elliot, scored a 1 1/2-length victory over Kesslin in the $250,000 race and leap- frogged Flatterer to become the leading money-earner in the history of the sport.
But Flatterer came back.
Sheppard said that a key to Flatterer's durability is his strong recuperative powers. He will be exhausted after a hard race and will lie around for a few days, but then bounce back with renewed vigor.
After missing the Breeders' Cup, Flatterer bounced back - with a vengeance. His ailment proved less serious than had been feared, and the gelding ran only two weeks after the Breeders' Cup event.
With his record fourth straight win in the Colonial Cup in Camden, S.C., on Nov. 16, he locked up his fourth straight steeplechase championship. His owners - William Pape, George Harris and Sheppard - will pick up another set of Eclipse Award statuettes on Feb. 6 in San Francisco.
Flatterer now has locked up just about every major American steeplechase record - only Zaccio before him had won as many as three straight Eclipse awards - and his owners are considering entering him in the $75,000 Atlanta Cup in early April to regain the earnings record from Census.
For much of this year, though, Flatterer's challenges will lie across the Atlantic in England and France. If all goes according to plan - and the disappointment of the Breeders' Cup makes obvious how quickly plans can be shattered - Flatterer will make his first start as an 8-year-old in England's Cheltenham Champion Hurdle on March 17.
He might return to the United States for the Atlanta race, in which he most likely would be asked to shoulder 178 pounds, more than any American steeplechaser has carried.
Then, according to plans, he would return to France in late June to run in the French Champion Hurdle at Auteuil Race Course near Paris. Under adverse conditions last year, Flatterer finished second in the French race.
The Breeders' Cup was to have been the race that emphatically marked Flatterer as one of the greatest American steeplechasers of all time. He made up for the missed opportunity in the Colonial Cup.
Census and Kesslin were ailing and could not start in the race. But their presence would have altered only the winning margin, for Flatterer crushed his opponents in the 2 3/4-mile race.
Jerry Fishback, Flatterer's regular jockey, dropped the hammer after jumping the fourth fence from home, and the 7-year-old gelding cruised away. He was five lengths in front at the final fence and drew away to a 17-length victory.
"In the last part of the race, he devastated his field," Sheppard said.
The win returned to Flatterer the unofficial earnings lead among American steeplechasers.
His steeplechase-meet purses, including winnings in France, total $404,021, to Census' $402,524. The National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, however, does not count money won overseas and lists Flatterer in second place with $368,396.
Through the 1980s, Flatterer and Zaccio have provided a focal point for the jumping sport. They have been the superstars, the horses that people turn out to see and almost certainly have contributed to the resurgence in American steeplechasing, which recorded its best year ever in 1986.
Sheppard has, of course, done his best to keep the superstar around by avoiding races in which the gelding's legs could be broken down by weight. He declined 178 pounds in Belmont Park's Temple Gwathmey in October, won by Census.
In packing the pounds, Flatterer had nothing to prove. He started out the season on April 5 by carrying 173 pounds in the Atlanta Cup, and by winning by two lengths equaled the weight record of Hall of Fame member Neji.
Flatterer wasted little time before he took the record for himself. Steeplechase racing secretary William Gallo Jr. added 3 pounds for the National Hunt Cup Steeplechase Handicap at the Radnor Hunt Races, near Malvern in Chester County.
Everything broke Flatterer's way in the Radnor race. The ground, parched by a drought through the spring, was rock-hard on May 17, and it helped the gelding to carry his 176-pound burden. Flatterer also ran into a soft field and whipped it by seven lengths.
The next month, Flatterer went to France and ran a remarkably strong and game race in the French Champion Hurdle at Auteuil. As many factors that had gone right against weak competition at Radnor went wrong for Flatterer as he
went against world-class competitors in France.
He was dropping a lot of weight, to 141 pounds, and lost Fishback, who could not make the weight. England's Richard Dunwoody, however, rode him superbly.
The race was 3 3/16 miles, longer than Flatterer had ever run successfully. But the distance was not the worst of it. The course was heavily watered, and the temperature rose into the 90s on the day of the race. Flatterer would be running in a hot bog.
But he ran. He was second to Le Rheusois, a two-time winner in the race, and finished ahead of favored Gacko, who came to the United States in the fall and faded to sixth in the Breeders' Cup. Sheppard said Flatterer was so exhausted that the gelding nearly passed out in Auteuil's unsaddling enclosure.
As usual, though, Flatterer bounced back and was launched into preparations for the Breeders' Cup. Then came the phone call.
Sheppard said he did not have time to think about his disappointment as veterinarian Dan Marks of the Delaware Equine Center attempted to isolate the problem. They could not, and Flatterer was scratched.
Sheppard said the Breeders' Cup was not a pleasant afternoon for him. "The worst part of it was everyone coming up to say how sorry they were," he said. ''In general, people did think the race was going to lose some of its luster because Flatterer wasn't in it."
The next day, Marks isolated the problem after finding a spot on Flatterer's back that was very sensitive. The veterinarian blocked the area with an anesthetic, and Flatterer walked soundly. He did not take another unsound step, even after the anesthetic had worn off.
Sheppard said Marks concluded that the problem was a muscle spasm, and Flatterer galloped on the Monday after the Breeders' Cup. Under medication, he was kept in very light exercise for another five days.
Sheppard gave Flatterer a light workout at the farm on Nov. 12, and put him on a van for South Carolina. After having the muscle problem and missing nearly a week of training, "we were taking a bit of a chance by running the horse," Sheppard said. But Flatterer ran - like a champion.
The champ, now in South Carolina, is scheduled to be shipped to England shortly before the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham Race Course, which is in the Cotswolds, in the west of England.
"It will be quite a challenge," Sheppard said, "but it's not insurmountable."