Sam Shepard Dead at 73


Sam Shepard | Getty Images

Sam Shepard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor and horse breeder, died late last week at his home in Kentucky at the age of 73. A spokesperson for Shepard’s family said that he died of complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Shepard, a native of Fort Sheridan, Illinois, grew up on a ranch in Duarte, California. He owned and operated Totier Creek Farm in Midway, Kentucky, which bred 2005 GII Fleur de Lis H. winner and GI Personal Ensign S. third-place finisher Two Trail Sioux (Indian Charlie). Shepard bred to sell and race and boarded his mares at Nuckols Farm in Kentucky. Shepard, who walked hots at Santa Anita as a teenager in the late 1950s, also played trainer Frank Whitely in the movie Ruffian.

Best known as an actor after receiving an Oscar nomination in “The Right Stuff,” Shepard also wrote more than 45 plays and won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1979 for his play, “Buried Child.”

Shepard is survived by his three children, sons Jesse and Samuel and daughter Hannah.

“Sam was a good friend. He loved horses and he loved Kentucky. He loved to be close to the horse business. That’s really what he loved. Obviously, he did plenty of other things, but his true love was horses and the west.”John T.L. Jones Jr. of Walmac Farm

“It’s a sad day. We’re sorry to see such a wonderful man pass away and we’re thinking of his family right now. He became a dear friend of both us and he was one of our favorite people. He always had a smile on his face and also had a very good sense of humor. He was really a wonderful guy and was very passionate about his horses.”Charles & Mary Jane Nuckols

NO ORDINARY COWBOY by Bill Oppenheim
A Profile of Playwright, Cowboy, Actor, and Thoroughbred Breeder Sam Shepard reprinted from July 28, 2010 TDN

Captains of industry, heads of state, great entertainers…the horse industry has embraced them all in the pursuit of one of the greatest challenges a human being can face–breeding a good horse. Working among us for the last 23 years in the pursuit of the great horse is a man who is a giant in the arts world: the playwright, cowboy, horse breeder and actor Sam Shepard, who operates under the nom de course of Totier Creek Farm in Midway, Kentucky.

He is best known as an actor who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” (1983), but Sam Shepard’s accomplishments in the theater mean a lot more to him than his movie credits, and so they should. He has written more than 45 plays and a scattering of other books. Eleven of his plays have won the coveted Obie Award for Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway productions. He won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1979 for his play, “Buried Child.” He was elected to the prestigious American Academy for Arts and Sciences, receiving its Gold Medal for Drama in 1992. He also takes great pride in being the first and still only non-Irish playwright to have a production staged at the storied Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the cradle of the Irish theater. He has been called “the world’s leading living playwright.” Yet, what would he still like to accomplish? “I’d love to own another good filly, and breed a really top horse.” The horse breeder speaks.

Sam Shepard didn’t get here by being a city boy. He was born in Illinois in 1943, and grew up on an avocado ranch in Duarte, California, a few miles east of Pomona. He graduated from Duarte’s 4-H Club to walking hots for trainer Keith Stucki and the likes of Mesh Tenney and Rex Elsworth at Santa Anita in the late 1950s. At the end of the 1950s, he was also working in an acting troupe, reading the avant-garde work of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, and riding in rodeos.

In the very early 1960s, when John Kennedy was president and avant-garde was about to become, under other names, the happening thing, Sam Shepard arrived in New York City as an aspiring actor. But he was turned off from acting by the grueling and often capricious audition process, and instead turned to writing. He quickly became a prominent figure in New York’s explosive arts scene in the early ‘Sixties,’ writing Off-Off Broadway plays, collaborating with the likes of Bob Dylan, no less, and becoming involved in the burgeoning anti-Vietnam and arts scenes. In 1969 he married the actress, writer and later composer O-Lan Jones, with whom he had a son, Jesse, and in 1973 moved his family to London, where he worked until 1976. During his stay in England he also raced greyhounds at the old White City greyhound track.

Shepard returned to California to become playwrightin- residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco; he also ran a boarding ranch near Santa Rosa, and became involved in racing Appaloosas. He wrote and premiered during this time several of the most famous of his more than 45 plays, including “Curse of the Starving Class;” “True West;” and “A Lie of the Mind.”

His acting career was rekindled in 1977, when he was cast in Terrence Malick’s film “Days of Heaven.” During filming, in Alberta, his interest in horses led him to become involved in team roping. In 1982, he was acting in a film called “Frances,” about the life of actress Frances Farmer, and became romantically involved with Jessica Lange, who played Farmer. In 1983, he and Lange moved to Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, while Shepard continued to write and act, and became, in his words, “addicted to polo.” In 1986, he bought Totier Creek Farm in Scottsville, Virginia, next to the legendary Nydrie Stud in the Charlottesville area. It was there that he started foxhunting. In the past few years he has added working with cutting horses (Quarterhorses used to cut cattle out of a herd) to his equine repertoire.

In January of 1987, Shepard attended a mixed sale at Hollywood Park with his son, Jesse, who was then working in Hollywood as a “wrangler.” Shepard had a check for about $3,500 in his pocket, he recalls, having been discharged from a part in a Woody Allen movie. He’d always wanted to be involved with Thoroughbreds, but up till then he could never afford it. Now he had a farm, and he bought a five-year-old barren mare, River Chant, by Upper Nile out of a mare by *Turn-to’s son Reverse, Light Verse.

Originally a $43,000 weanling, she was being sold barren, having been bred as a three-year-old and produced a then-yearling by a horse called *Tantoul. Shepard bought her for $3,500. She was a half-sister to a mare by Whitesburg (son of Crimson Satan) named Carols Christmas, who became an important producer for Verne Winchell and his family; she was the dam of Olympio and is the ancestress of Wild Wonder and Pyro.

Hotwalker, rodeo rider, farm manager, team roper, polo player, and foxhunting, and, latterly, cutting horses–there isn’t much Sam Shepard hasn’t done with horses. Then, in 1987, he became a Thoroughbred breeder. “I had a farm, and I’d never been able to afford Thoroughbreds,” recalls Shepard. “But I’ve always been fascinated by pedigrees, by how you plan and actually breed these things. Now I had the chance.”

Shepard has never been a high-volume producer, but he’s been a Thoroughbred breeder ever since. At last count, Shepard’s Totier Creek Farm (named after a creek that ran through his Virginia farm) had bred 69 named foals which are three-year-olds and up in 2010, of which 46–exactly two-thirds–are winners. He has bred eight black-type horses, six of which descend from Shepard’s $3,500 mare River Chant. These include the first foal he bred out of River Chant, Common Threads, by Key to the Kingdom (“What a pedigree he had, and bred on the Bold Ruler–Princequillo cross,” he recalls), and her son Cajole, by Saint Ballado (“A gorgeous horse. Great presence.”), sold by Totier Creek for $210,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale in 2001, and who went on to win 15 races and $333,911. Ornate, by Gilded Time out of Nile Chant (by Val de l’Orne out of River Chant), was a black-type winner of $177,972 herself, and has gone on to breed two black-type winners, including High Heels, an E Dubai filly who won the GII Fantasy S. in 2007 and earned $484,636. Sam Shepard didn’t breed her, but he did breed her momma, so he still takes great pride in High Heels’ accomplishments.

Shepard has always raced a few horses, too, nearly always fillies, because he’s a horse breeder by temperament. Two sires he’s done well with are Quiet American and Indian Charlie. In 1995 he bought a filly by Quiet American for $87,000 in the Keeneland September sale. Named Quiet Trail and trained in New York by Bruce Levine, she went on to become a black type-placed winner of four races and earned over $145,000.

In 1998, Indian Charlie, by the California stallion In Excess and trained by Bob Baffert, won his fourth straight without defeat in that year’s GI Santa Anita Derby, then ran third to Real Quiet in the GI Kentucky Derby, but injury intervened and he never ran again. Shepard had been impressed by Indian Charlie, and in 2000, his second year at stud, he sent Quiet Trail to him. The resulting filly was offered at the 2001 Keeneland November sale, but Shepard bought her back for $67,000, then sold her the following September for $55,000.

That filly went on to be Two Trail Sioux, winner of six of her 12 starts, including the GII Fleur de Lis H. at Churchill Downs, and earned $664,960. In all, Totier Creek has bred the earners of around $3-million.

The same year he bred Quiet Trail to Indian Charlie, Shepard bought a filly from his first crop, for $45,000 at the 2001 Keeneland September sale. He named her Crow Jane and turned her over to trainer Jeff Thornbury, under whose tutelage she won four races and over $113,000, and ran third in the Pan Zareta S. at Fair Grounds. Shepard bred Crow Jane to Tale of the Cat in 2006, and she produced a colt foal in 2007, but unfortunately she died foaling, though the colt was saved. He brought $110,000 at the 2008 Keeneland September sale from Michael Tabor, and went to Todd Pletcher. Named China, he won his first start impressively as a two-year-old last year and was pointing for the two-year-old stakes at Saratoga. He was then injured, but is now back in training with Pletcher.

Shepard has retained his faith in Quiet American, too. In the 10th of Keeneland September’s 14 sessions last year, he came across a Quiet American filly in Bill Harrigan’s consignment. She was the first foal of Grand Flight, a Grand Slam mare who is a half-sister to a good black-type and graded-stakes placed winner by Quiet American, Quiet Dance, who is the dam of Saint Liam, no less.

Shepard bought her for $15,000 (“Can you believe it?” he asks. “A Quiet American filly for $15,000!”); his 3/4-sister to Quiet Dance is named Soft Candles (Grand Slam’s dam was Bright Candles), and she is in training now with Jeff Thornbury, getting ready to run. His eyes light up when he talks about her, recalling “Promising Two-Year-Old,” one of some 130 stories in Shepard’s newest book, Day Out of Days. It goes like this:

“The axiom goes: ‘No man with a promising two-year-old ever committed suicide.” He hangs on the training track rail at 4:00 a.m. in the pitch dark, feeling the rumble of hooves through the turn coming right up into the hollows of his old knees. He sips on his hot chocolate and coffee mix, and feels like a genius for breeding this blistering-fast colt. The whole rest of his life is a catastrophe: his marriage, his family, his dying friends, his lost opportunities. But this colt–even in the dark, as he flashes by–rippling sorrel muscle, the rhythmic blasts from the nostrils, this colt lights up what’s left of the man’s mind. That part that still lies vulnerable to brilliance and courage. It lifts him up like a love affair or the great ball of sun just now cracking over the backstretch.”

That’s a horse breeder talking, folks. A horseman. A cowboy. And, by the way, in my role as literary critic, I can tell you Day Out of Days is about the best book I have read in the last 10 years. I laughed. I cried. I sang along. It’s stupendous, and hopefully available at a bookstore, or from a website, near you.

But horse racing and the horse business today are not what they were just two or three years ago, a fact to which horse breeder and seller Shepard can testify personally.

In 2007 he became enamored with a sire called Littleexpectations, a dual black-type winner sprinting at Fair Grounds and a full brother to three other black-type winners by Valid Appeal, including perennial leading Texas sire Valid Expectations (“Dirt. Speed. In Reality,” says Shepard, “all things I like to see in a horse.”). Littleexpectations had the good two-year-old King of the Roxy from his first crop in 2006, and was standing the 2007 season at Millennium Farms in Kentucky.

Shepard bred four mares to him, and 2 1/2 years later-by now Littleexpectations had been sent back to Louisiana–Shepard bought two fillies by him back in Book Seven of last September’s sale for $1,000 each. He sold a mare in November for $1,000 and asked the buyer what he was going to do with her. “Breed her to a jack mule”, the man said. “Terrific,” said Shepard, and he meant it. Nobody was making money breeding Thoroughbreds out of her.

Shepard bred only two mares this year, a daughter of Quiet Trail by Maria’s Mon named Quiet Maria; and Deep Woods, a black type-placed Forest Wildcat mare. Quiet Maria, a half-sister to Two Trail Sioux, won at Louisiana Downs and Fair Grounds. Her first foal, a 2009 colt by Mizzen Mast, is in the Keeneland September sale (Four Star Sales, agent); she has a 2010 colt by the Crestwood Farm stallion Unbridled Energy, and is in foal to Tale of the Cat. Deep Woods has a yearling Sharp Humor filly, also in at Keeneland; a colt foal this year by Sharp Humor; and is in foal to Dunkirk. Why has Shepard sold, given away, or retired the rest of his mares? “There’s nobody there to buy the stock,” he says. “Why breed them?”

Sam Shepard has a keen sense of history, and he thinks a little differently about the past and future of horse racing and the horse business than a lot of people do.

“A hundred years ago,” he says, “the horse was a part of the social structure, part of the fabric of society. Horses delivered the milk. People traveled around in buggies. Kids went to school on horseback.”

I first interviewed Shepard for this article a year ago at the July sale. At that time, as he pointed out, “The most popular film in America starred a robot and had two human beings in it.” When we finished the interview at this year’s July sale (he thought this was hilarious, that it took me a year to do the follow-up interview), the most popular movie was a cartoon. His point? Horses are not a part of people’s normal world in the 21st century. A hundred years ago, racing horses was a natural outgrowth of people being around horses. Now, the vast majority of people don’t even really know, or care, what a horse is. The horse, the cowboy, the rural life–these things are all passing out of human history.

To Sam Shepard, it’s not about converting people to horse racing; that, he believes, is a hopeless task, doomed by the march of history. Rather, he contends, our efforts should be to support the people who are already involved, and to introduce those people who may be interested to the horse and to horse racing.

He has a suggestion in this regard: that one of the marketing projects of an organization like the Breeders’ Cup or NTRA should be to go back and collect old footage of horse racing which could be packaged up and made available for people to watch. He particularly mentioned old black-and-white footage he has seen of horse racing 100 years ago, a time before television, when you could see the crowd in the infield watch the horses gallop by the stands at the start of a two-turn race, rush to the other side of the track to watch the horses in the backstretch, then rush back to the other side to see the finish. “You can see, on those films, how passionate people were about horse racing,” he says. “Let’s show people those films, and show them the film of Secretariat winning the Belmont by 31 lengths, literally galloping his rivals into the ground. Let them see for themselves what the fuss was all about. It’s about those great horses, the great rivalries like Affirmed and Alydar. If people could see those films, a few people would want to know more, to see more, to experience it themselves. Out of those could come the fans, the gamblers, the horse owners of the future.”

There was a time when cowboys like Sam Shepard and the legendary rodeo rider Casey Tibbs worked as wranglers, with horses, in the movies. By the time his son Jesse worked as a wrangler, they weren’t making any more Westerns; they had ceased to resonate among the majority of society, and wranglers were driving fork-lift trucks and were members of the Teamsters Union. Funny when you consider that ‘teamsters’ were originally teams of men who drove mule trains, but now, for 50 years, have driven trucks. If the tide of history has turned against us, Shepard counsels, “Let’s at least keep it authentic.” Let’s remember, for as long as horse racing survives as a human pursuit, that, really, it’s all about our great friend–the horse.

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