No matter what happens the rest of his career, trainer Rodolphe Brisset can say he once had a Kentucky Derby winner in his barn.
The arrangement, of course, was unofficial and temporary. Brisset, a 34-year old Frenchman just starting out with his own stable last year, knew that going in when powerful WinStar Farm sent him more than a dozen of their most promising 2-year olds to help develop before they were shipped to superstar trainers like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.
Among that group in Brisset’s care was Justify, a horse of significant size and obvious ability who had suffered a setback on the farm and thus arrived in September, still needing to be taught plenty about racetrack life before he was ready to run.
“He was a very immature baby,” Brisset said in a phone interview Saturday. “(He) never made a bad step, always going forward, pleasure to be around. But definitely immature. It was the right move that he didn’t run at 2.”
Brisset’s connection to an all-time great would be an interesting enough piece of trivia if Justify goes on to win the Triple Crown as many have predicted following his impressive Derby win in just his fourth career start. On the other hand, Brisset could have a more immediate and ironic role to play in the Justify story: Triple Crown spoiler.
Preakness Stakes: Good Magic is in, Bolt d’Oro is out
While WinStar understandably sent their best Kentucky Derby prospects to more experienced trainers, Brisset was able to hang onto a colt named Quip, who is expected to ship to Baltimore on Wednesday and take on Justify in the Preakness Stakes.
“This is the next logical step,” said Brisset.
On paper, there’s nothing unusual about Quip’s entry in the Preakness. He won the Tampa Bay Derby in his 2018 debut, giving Brisset his first graded stakes win as a trainer, then came back with a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby. Though Quip had enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Brisset felt his horse came out of the prep races a little tired and pointed instead to the Preakness where he would have five weeks to recover.
Under normal circumstances, that progression wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But this year it does because Quip is still owned by a partnership that includes WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club — the same principals who own Justify. In other words, by entering Quip in the Preakness, there’s at least some risk they’ll kill their own Triple Crown hopes.
But WinStar isn’t some mom-and-pop operation. While it has had an incredible year on the racetrack with Justify and others, its primary business is breeding where the most desired stallions will get sent 100 or more mares per year at a cost of $200,000-$300,000 per mating.
“Our racing stable is geared toward trying to produce stallion opportunities,” WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden said after the Derby.
So let’s say Justify has a bad day at Pimlico on Saturday and Quip ends up winning the Preakness. While Justify’s value as a stallion wouldn’t necessarily go down based on one performance, Quip’s would potentially skyrocket.
And as Brisset explains it, the ownership group makes decisions based on what’s best for each horse individually, which isn’t just the smart thing to do from a stallion perspective but also the sporting thing to do. Regardless of what happens with Justify, Quip deserves to be in the race.
“They are very good horsemen, they know the business and they think by the horse,” Brisset said. “Now at the end of the day, if Justify is the horse they think he is, he’s going to beat Quip and maybe go on and win the Triple Crown.”
In many ways, it’s remarkable Brisset is even in this position so early in his training career.
A native of the countryside about three hours southwest of Paris, he had no family affiliation with horse racing but began riding as a youngster and was talented enough to earn an invitation at age 14 to France’s most prestigious jockey academy.
Though Brisset eventually grew too big to continue in that field, he got involved on the training side as an assistant. Then with the help of his friend Julien Leparoux — who is now one of America’s most successful jockeys but had just come over from France at that time — he landed a job in 2005 in the barn of Patrick Biancone. When Brisset, then 21, called his mother and asked if she could bring a moving truck to his apartment because he was moving to the U.S. in 10 days, he said there was about five seconds of silence on the other end of the line.
“It was pretty (gutsy), you can say that,” he said. “But it was the right time, and I fell in love with the country. People don’t judge you on your last name or how much money you have. They judge you on what you can do and anybody who wants to make it happen for himself has a shot.”
Brisset made it happen by proving his horsemanship with Biancone, then as a 10-year assistant for Hall of Famer Bill Mott, which allowed Brisset to be around some top-level horses like Drosselmeyer, who won the 2010 Belmont and 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic for WinStar. That preexisting relationship was a big boost for Brisset when he decided to go out on his own last year. It said a lot for such a young trainer that WinStar trusted him enough to send him horses like Quip and Justify, whom he rode personally during workouts last fall, even if it was just for a little while.
That’s why Brisset had no mixed emotions or thoughts of what-if when Justify powered through the slop at Churchill Downs last Saturday. Though Baffert gets all the credit for getting Justify to the Derby without running as a 2-year old — and deservedly so — Brisset is satisfied with the small part he played.
“For me to be a young trainer working with quality horses, it’s a great experience and I totally understand not keeping some of them,” said Brisset, who currently has 25 horses but expects to go to 40 this year. “Any experience you can take in this business, you’ve got to take it and for me, with a new business starting on my own, it’s a big deal.
“They may ask me to send the horses to the big trainer, but hopefully one day maybe somebody will send me those horses. But for now it was a win-win.”
If he wins the Preakness with Quip — and beats Justify in the process — that day may come sooner than he thinks.