A week after her resounding success in the Grade 1 Jonathan Sheppard Handicap at Saratoga, trainer Keri Brion said the result still hadn’t fully sunk in. Brion saddled four runners in the race, and trained all of the trifecta, led by The Mean Queen (IRE) and rounded out by Baltimore Bucko (GB) and French Light (FR).
“I didn’t really allow myself to even start thinking about it,” said Brion. “A lot of people were saying it to me, but to be honest I just hoped one of them could get it done. I knew the pressure was on – on paper, mine were the ones to beat. It wasn’t until the eighth pole I started yelling for French Light, ‘Get up there!’ to be third.”
The accomplishment was fitting, since Brion served as assistant trainer to Sheppard for 11 years and was part of his team for several of his 15 victories in the race, formerly known as the New York Turf Writers Cup.
For Brion, the past six months since going out on her own have been a whirlwind. Brion had taken a string of Sheppard’s horses over to Ireland in November 2020 and was still there when she got word in January that Sheppard was retiring. Brion had long hoped to open her own racing stable and had developed good relationships with many of Sheppard’s owners, so she had expected at some point she may take the mantle from him but said it happened rather suddenly.
“I always planned to go out on my own, but maybe not in this way,” she said. “But everything happens for a reason, and everything’s going pretty good now.”
Now, she is the leading trainer in the National Steeplechase Association standings by earnings and is tied with recent Hall of Fame inductee Jack Fisher for NSA wins. She got her first Grade 1 win in late July when Baltimore Bucko took the G1 A.P. Smithwick Memorial. Her jaunt to Ireland also helped her make history, as she became the first American trainer to win a hurdle race in the country (courtesy of The Mean Queen) and the first to win a National Hunt race in Ireland with Scorpion’s Revenge. Brion said the level of competition in Ireland and England for steeplechase horses is considerably higher than in the United States, where there are comparatively few steeplechase horses.
The months spent in Ireland exposed Brion to new training styles to build better fitness and stamina, but also gave her the chance to develop an angle she hopes will bring new owners into the steeplechase scene in the States. Prize money has become a major problem in English and Irish racing, and Brion has found that a mid-level runner there can be tremendously successful in America, where steeplechase purses are much better.
“Obviously, over there jump racing is more prestigious, so they’ve got that going for them but the guys who are putting a lot of money into the sport don’t even break even,” she said. “You can at least break even, maybe make some money here when you do it the right way. I have quite a few people intrigued by it.”
American jump racing is a great outlet for a runner who prefers firm ground, which they don’t reliably get in Ireland.
Although steeplechase is most popular in East Coast areas known for all types of equestrian sport, like fox hunting and eventing, Brion said she wish more people understood that it really has more in common with flat racing than cross country.
“I wish the sport did a better job of advocating and teaching people about it because there are quite a few misconceptions about the sport, but it’s only because you would have no way to know,” she said. “I think people look at us as a different entity. Flat racing, you look at them as athletes doing a sport. Steeplechase racing, I think people look at it like we’re almost show horses which we’re not. We’re just as competitive as the flat, and there’s money to be made in it. It could be supported just as well.”
Brion first came to horses not as a reformed show rider, but as a Thoroughbred fan from the age of 10. She started off working at Sylmar Farm in Christiana, Penn., and learned to gallop at the age of 13. Although she’s known for her steeplechase success, Brion said she hopes to build a name for herself in the realm of flat racing also, the way Sheppard did with top runners Informed Decision and Forever Together.
Perhaps contrary to popular belief among flat racing fans, Brion said the training process for a steeplechaser really isn’t much different from a flat horse. Hurdlers also don’t actually travel much slower than flat horses and need just as strong a closing kick, they just settle over a greater distance first.
[Story Continues Below]
Brion also sees potential in a certain type of flat horse to make a transition over hurdles, and is hopeful she can help more owners see the potential in that type of second career.
“You look for horses – whether they’re turf or dirt – that are running long, they’re coming late, and just missing,” she said. “Horses that look like they want more ground. I don’t mind dirt or turf, either way. You want to see horses that are finishing third or fourth and are galloping out strongly. Every horse jumps, it’s just a matter of how good. You can teach them to jump. Even a $10,000 claimer who just runs out of room or is just very one-paced and has a high cruising speed, those are the horses that do well [steeplechasing]. And it’s always good to remind owners, horses get their maiden conditions back over jumps.”
The summer season has been a busy one for Brion, who bases out of Fair Hill. The Fair Hill base is perfect for her program, which allows horses regular turnout and the chance to gallop over rolling hills, but it still means a lot of time on the road. Brion is sending horses to Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania at regular intervals, so her days are long ones. Brion spent some time as a jockey (she was champion apprentice jump jockey in 2017), and still gallops as many of her own string of 30 as she can. This fall will bring more commuting, as there are steeplechase meets every weekend through mid-November. Race days like the G1 Jonathan Sheppard make the long days worth it.
“I have quite a few nice 2-year-olds in my barn, so I’m hoping they will fire and I can get my name out there,” she said. “I’ve got a bunch of new owners from overseas and I’m looking forward to getting new horses in. My success in Saratoga has really helped me, and I have some exciting new clients.”
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2021 Paulick Report.