By Bill Finley
He is not one of the usual suspects. While Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Dale Romans, Chad Brown, et. al. are in the midst of their annual pilgrimage to Churchill Downs for the GI Kentucky Derby, they may have to contend with a rival trainer who many people probably hadn’t even heard of prior to last Saturday’s GII Tampa Bay Derby. Rodolphe Brisset didn’t start his first horse until May 14 of last year, and coming into the Tampa race had won just nine races, none of them stakes. But if a trainer knows what he is doing and has a good horse, why should any of that matter?
That’s exactly what Brisset, 34, might ultimately prove. In Quip (Distorted Humor) he has a horse that may be good enough to give the trainer a Kentucky Derby winner less than one year after he started his first horse.
“I just started my own barn, but I have been known for quite some time,” he said. “[Winning the Tampa Bay Derby] was a very good feeling. But we’re just trying to keep our feet on the ground. We’ve already gotten back to work.”
A native of Tours, France, Brisset began his career as a jockey in France, but didn’t achieve much success and battled weight problems. So he decided to become an exercise rider and, looking for a place for a fresh start, emigrated to the U.S. in 2005.
“I was not a very good jockey; I am a much better exercise rider,” he said. “I rode for four or five years and got too heavy. I was never supposed t be a jockey.”
His first stop in the U.S. was with Patrick Biancone. In 2007 he went to work for Bill Mott and eventually became one of his top assistants. Learning from a Hall of Famer and having the chance to both train and exercise some of the best horses in racing, he was in no particular hurry to leave.
“At first, I didn’t feel like I was mature enough,” Brisset said. “I wanted to give myself a couple more years to be able to make sure I didn’t mess up the only shot I may have. Then everything fell into place and it was the right time.”
Quip was bred by WinStar Farm and WinStar’s President and CEO Elliott Walden was familiar with Brisset because Mott had several of their horses.
“When he was with Bill we always respected his opinion on a horse and his demeanor,” Walden said. “We thought he was a very talented horseman.”
Still, why would WinStar give a horse with this much potential to an unproven trainer when it could have given him to virtually anyone in the country? The answer, Walden said, had a lot to do with Brisset’s riding ability.
“Rodolphe is a tremendous rider,” Walden said. “He’s talented on both the ground and on a horse. He had 10 stalls right next to our barn at Keeneland and we let him look after some of our 2-year-olds, with the understanding that a lot of them would eventually go to other trainers. We decided to leave this one with Rodolphe because he was very keen and aggressive and Rodolphe got a long with him very well. To have him continue to exercise this horse was obviously going to be a plus.”
Brisset remains the regular exercise rider for Quip, who is now co-owned by WinStar, China Horse Club International and SF Racing LLC.
Brisset won with the fourth starter he sent out, but until Quip came along it looked like his barn was lacking the type of horse who could make a name for its trainer. Quip broke his maiden in his first start, which came at Churchill, and then romped by 6 1/2 lengths in an allowance race at Keeneland. Next out, he showed little in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., finishing seventh, eighth lengths behind the winner Enticed (Medaglia d’Oro).
Coming off a poor effort, with a relatively unknown trainer and squaring off against a tough set of opponents, Quip was dismissed at 19-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby. But he came through with arguably the best performance of his life to win by a length over GIII Sam F. Davis winner Flameaway (Scat Daddy).
“We were expecting a good effort,” Brisset said. “It was only a matter if he was good enough to show he belonged against the best horses and if he wanted to take us to the Derby. We all along felt like we had to give him a shot at it. We picked this race. We were able to get him ready the way we wanted to. The matter of whether he good enough, he showed that was.”
Brisset and the owners have yet to pick out Quip’s next start, though the GII Blue Grass S. at Keeneland would certainly be a good fit.
A horse like Quip and a win in a Derby prep race are things that can change the course of a young trainer’s career, and Brisset said he has heard from some potential new clients after the race. He currently has 20 horses and expects to add some 2-year-olds to his stable shortly. In the meantime, though, he said his plan is to just keep doing what he’s been doing.
“I’m not sure this win changed anything for us,” he said. “Yes, we enjoyed it for a day or two, but you have to get back to work. Nothing is being taken for granted.”