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Going out on your own as a trainer is one of the riskiest things that a person in horse racing can do financially. The dream is to find a stakes-winning horse early in the process that will win top purses, help pay the bills, and attract prospective new owners to help build the operation.
Trainer Rodolphe Brisset is living that dream with the very first horse that he brought into his barn in April 2017. Talk Veuve to Me, the Grade 3 Indiana Oaks winner, has ascended the ranks of the 3-year-old filly division. Brisset’s next target for the filly that started it all is this Saturday’s Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga.
Actually, Talk Veuve to Me was metaphorically “in the barn” before a physical stall even existed for her.
“I went out with the news in February (2017) that I was going out on my own the beginning of April,” said Brisset. “Everything was planned. We went to OBS (Ocala Breeders’ Sales 2017 March Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training), and when I went up there, I was not planning on coming back with a horse. Sean Tugel, who’s a good friend and working for WinStar, had the filly on his short-list and shot me a text if I’d be interested in looking at her. My wife and I liked her right away. We didn’t get her in the (auction) ring, but we got her after (through a private sale).”
Brisset had a small issue, though – he didn’t actually have a stall yet where he could house his new filly.
“The funny side of the story is we ended up buying her, but we didn’t know where to put her,” joked Brisset. “The consignor (RiceHorse Stables) offered to keep her as long as we needed, though.”
Three weeks after the sale, Talk Veuve to Me had a new home when Brisset set up his barn at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s been a wild ride since for Brisset, including a Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby win with Quip, one of his first horses that he received from owner WinStar Farm. Brisset was also responsible for another WinStar trainee last summer and fall named Justify, who you might’ve heard won this year’s Triple Crown.
The 34-year-old French native, who was a jockey from 1998 to 2002 before becoming an assistant trainer for 13 years, has worked to perfect his craft along the way and now has a focused plan, starting with preparing Talk Veuve to Me for a major test in the Alabama.
Talk Veuve (pronounced “vuv”) to Me emerged onto the scene on March 25 at Fair Grounds, breaking her maiden by 11 1/4 lengths in her 2018 debut. Team Valor International acquired a 50% interest in Talk Veuve to Me after the race joining co-owners Stephen McKay and Brisset.
The daughter of Violence followed that up with a strong runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Eight Belles Stakes at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks Day behind top sprinter Mia Mischief. Brisset saw enough from that run to try Grade 1 company in the Acorn on Belmont Stakes Day. Talk Veuve to Me ran a strong second behind division leader Monomoy Girl, losing by only 2 lengths in just her fourth career start.
A cakewalk win going 1 1/16 miles in her two-turn debut in mid-July’s Indiana Oaks came next. She stalked the early pace and drew off strongly as the 1/9 favorite under a hand ride from jockey Julien Leparoux.
“When she won the Indiana Oaks, she showed her speed,” said Brisset. “She has natural speed, but she carried it. It’s a big, big weapon. She’s tactical, but she can rate, too.”
Brisset said Talk Veuve to Me’s ability to be tactical is a reason why he’s not worried about the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Alabama, the longest that she or any of the other entries have raced in their careers. Also expected to enter the Alabama are the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks winner Midnight Bisou and the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks victor She’s a Julie, both from trainer Steve Asmussen. Coach Rocks, Auspicious Babe, Eskimo Kisses, and the Indiana Oaks runner-up Figarella’s Queen are also likely to enter.
Since shipping to Saratoga after her Indiana Oaks win, Brisset has worked Talk Veuve to Me three times in the mornings himself. He’s not just a trainer, he’s also an astute exercise rider, and he uses his experiences as a jockey to regularly gallop and work his own horses.
“I’m happy where we are with her,” said Brisset. “She’s a very easy horse to be around. It’s been a great couple of weeks with her here (at Saratoga).”
Talk Veuve to Me’s first Saratoga workout on July 29 was a bullet best-of-99, going a solo 4 furlongs in 47.02 seconds over the Oklahoma Training Track, while showing her immense speed. Her next two works have been behind a workmate including finishing up her preparations for the Alabama on Monday with a 4-furlong work over the Oklahoma in 47.95 seconds, which was the second-fastest of 54 works on the day.
“Her first breeze was a tick too fast,” said Brisset. “If I have anyone to blame, it’s me. A fast horse breezes fast. She kind of tricked me a little bit. The week after that, we slowed it down a bit and put another horse with her. She was nice and smooth on the bridle, and that’s what we were looking for.”
Her ability goes beyond her workouts, though, as she has the intangibles that can make a great horse.
“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years already and I’ve been around a lot of horses,” he said. “She’s scary, scary smart. That’s what makes her special.”
Talk Veuve to Me is special enough that she’s helped steer the barn in the direction of the country’s most prestigious summer meet.
“We decided to come here for the whole meet and she was one of the reasons, not the only reason, we came here,” said Brisset. “In the back of our mind, we were thinking of a race like (the Alabama) for her.”
Coming back to Saratoga, where (among other places) he was an assistant for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott for 11 years, gives Brisset networking opportunities to meet new prospective clients and build on his existing owner base.
“You want to bring good horses to run (at Saratoga),” said Brisset. “We have a few horses that we think can fit here. We have a couple of owners that are from New York that sent us horses to Keeneland, so it’s fair for me to come to New York with them. You meet new people, you go to the races, you put the word out, and you see what happens. You don’t grow if you don’t take any risks.”
One of the clients that has been imperative to growing Brisset’s barn is WinStar. Brisset built that relationship during his time with Mott, so when he inaugurated his barn at Keeneland, WinStar was quick to send Brisset horses.
“(WinStar) took a big bet on us and I took it very seriously,” he said. “We had 16 horses in the barn after eight days when we opened up the barn. WinStar sent us 10 or 12 horses. When you have a business plan and you have the mindset that we were planning on six or eight horses, and then you have 16 in the barn, it was pressure on us and a bet for them. From my past working for Bill, Mr. (Elliot) Walden (CEO of WinStar Farm) knew what I was capable of and what we could put together, and it ended up great. I’m still working with them and we have a couple more with them.”
After the initial strings of WinStar juveniles passed through the Brisset barn (including Quip during the spring and summer), WinStar entrusted Brisset to start training a chestnut colt sired by Scat Daddy named Justify.
“Justify came to us in mid-August last year,” said Brisset. “He was a good-looking horse, but nobody would’ve ever guessed what would happen after. He was a great horse to be around. He was very forward and was doing everything easily.”
Like some of the horses that Brisset trained for WinStar last year, Justify was always tabbed to go to Hall-of-Fame conditioner Bob Baffert once he was ready to make it to the races. Justify left Brisset’s barn last November to join Baffert’s string in California, but Brisset doesn’t wonder what it would’ve been like to have the chance to train Justify in his racing career.
“WinStar was very clear on what they wanted me to do,” he said. “I did my job. We’re still working together and I proved myself.”
Some would dwell on not being able to train an eventual Triple Crown winner, but Brisset sees the bigger picture and long-range plan.
“The people at WinStar are great horsemen,” said Brisset. “They know how the game goes and the business goes. We have a very clear understanding. I know what they’re looking for and what they want and they know what I can do, so it’s a win-win being a young trainer and having a young barn. It’s a great ally to have. They support us, and we try to support them as much as we can.”
Brisset’s relationship with WinStar became a national story when the team decided to bypass running Quip in the Kentucky Derby, opting for a try in the Preakness instead. After winning the Tampa Bay Derby, Brisset’s first as a trainer in a graded stakes, Quip ran a gritty second in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Though he’d earned enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, the decision was made to skip the Run for the Roses because Quip was not ready after only a three-week turn-around. What resulted was a disappointing last-place finish out of eight in the Preakness over a sloppy track in a dense fog at Pimlico.
“It’s an easy excuse to say the surface (was the reason),” said Brisset. “You got to be realistic. You can try to find any excuse you want to find, but the horse just didn’t pick up his feet at all.”
Quip returned with one workout after the Preakness, but after some tough races to start the year, Brisset and WinStar decided to rest him with a focus on returning later in 2018.
“We gave him 60 days (of rest at WinStar), just doing right by the horse,” said Brisset. “As usual, WinStar is great for that. We’ll give him some time and it’s the right thing to do.”
While two graded stakes winners lead his barn, Brisset has bright prospects in the juvenile ranks. One that is guaranteed to garner attention is Positive Spirit, a 3/4 sister to the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming. A daughter of Pioneerof the Nile out of the In Excess mare Above Perfection, she has put in four works at Saratoga since mid-July.
“What she’s showing us right now is a lot based on class,” said Brisset. “She definitely looks like a two-turn type of horse. When we started to train her at Keeneland, she showed ability right off the bat. She’s acclimated very well (at Saratoga) and we got a couple of nice workouts into her. We would like to sprint her first time, even if she’s a two-turn horse. I’d look more at 7 furlongs.”
Brisset is looking for a spot by the end of the Saratoga meet, but he won’t push it if he doesn’t find the right race. Brisset has a total of eight horses stabled at Saratoga, including Positive Spirit’s workmate, Wheedle. The two-year-old Flatter filly sold for $350,000 as a yearling last year in the Fasig-Tipton Select Sale at Saratoga.
“She looks more like a 6-furlong sprinter,” he said. “If everything goes right, she’ll definitely have a race by the end of the month.”
Semper Sententiae is one of the horses that Brisset’s already run at the meet. The 3-year-old filly sired by The Factor debuted on July 22 at Saratoga with a sixth-place finish.
“She ran once and we got a rough trip,” he said. “We like the filly and she’s already come back and breezed once. (She) had a very good workout. We’ll definitely look at running her back by the end of the month.”
Overall, Brisset has about 40 horses in his stable, with strings also at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. After the Saratoga meet, Brisset will go back to Kentucky, but he has plans to bring a small string to Belmont in the spring of 2019 and possibly be present in New York from April to November.
“In New York, it’s a tough circuit, but it’s where everyone wants to be,” said Brisset.
With a focused plan and the support of his wife, Brooke, who was an exercise rider for trainers Graham Motion and Shug McGaughey for about a decade, Brisset has the experience, tools, and drive to become one of the nation’s top trainers. He’s juggling strings in three locations and will have another responsibility to handle soon, as Brooke is expecting a baby boy in November. Asked how he will handle all of these responsibilities at once, Brisset joked, “That’s why I hired good assistant trainers.”
Being a successful trainer includes not just horsemanship, but also organizational and management skills, which Brisset approaches by surrounding himself with the best possible people that he can recruit.
“The way we set up things, I’m lucky enough to have great people around me,” he said. “Dave Lively is my assistant trainer in Keeneland and Lee Bentley is my assistant at Churchill. When we put everything together, we have great people that are very reliable.”
After the season is over at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, Brisset will have strings this winter at Payson Park in Florida and some stalls at Fair Grounds.
“My whole plan was, if I’m putting the word out to grow, we’re not scared about numbers,” said Brisset. “If we end up having 60 horses next year, it wouldn’t be a problem. The main thing is you have to have the right people with you. We’ll build the barn and the different divisions with that in mind. It takes time and money, but it’s well-spent because at the end of the day, it’s going to pay off. You just have to keep working, have those people with you, and keep going.”
Generation Now is a new series highlighting the top younger trainers at Saratoga all summer. This is the third installment. The first two parts profiled trainers Jonathan Thomas and Chad Summers. Please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for updates.
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