Rodolphe Brisset  at Keeneland

Rodolphe Brisset at Keeneland

Anne M. Eberhardt

Brisset in His Element on His Own

Former Bill Mott assistant has a Kentucky Derby (G1) contender in Quip.

A slight pause hangs in the air before Rodolphe Brisset completes his train of thought because he knows, once he does, it might be digested the wrong way.

He knows what many expect his answer should be—that his current reality is a bit overwhelming, that he never dreamed he would be in this spot so soon with an even more brain-shattering experience potentially on the horizon in three weeks. He is as much straightforward as he is polite, however. So, after a brief halt of breath, he simply lays out the truth.

"It's funny, because—and I'm always careful that people take this the right way—but it's not really different," the 34-year-old native of France said of his first year as a head trainer after nearly a decade as one of the top assistants to Hall of Famer Bill Mott. "It's my name, that's the big difference, and all the paperwork and everything. But the rest? It's what we've been doing for years. It didn't feel different. It's just normal."

Watch Brisset's quiet hands guide his charges through their morning paces and you won't need him to state the obvious. He is a natural at picking up subtle cues from horses, hence his years as the right-hand man to one of the sport's best developers of equine talent.

So when he made the decision in the summer of 2016 to operate his own barn by the following April, the emotional toll of saying goodbye to that work family was balanced by inner calm that he had, in fact, picked the right time to gamble on himself. His situation was changing, not his ability or knowledge.

Do not mistake Brisset's faith in himself for a shortage of humility, because if his experience has taught him anything, it is to appreciate every moment horses like Quip bring into your life. Less than a year after saddling his first starter, Brisset found himself in the remarkable position of training his first graded stakes winner—and, by extension, a leading contender on the Road to the Kentucky Derby—when Quip bested multiple graded stakes winner Flameaway during his season debut in the March 10 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2).

As Brisset readies the son of Distorted Humor  for a start in the April 14 Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park against the likes of unbeaten Magnum Moon and grade 1-placed Solomini, he is reminded of the magnitude of his situation. Barring a disappointing run this Saturday or a subsequent setback, Quip is expected to be in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). That Brisset is poised to check off the career-changing box in the first 13 months of opening his own public stable is something no sane bookmaker would have deigned to put odds on this time a year ago.

It was only last April that Brisset officially hung out his own shingle, after working for Mott since 2007. And while the racing community was used to seeing him aboard such top runners as champion Royal Delta, Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Drosselmeyer, and Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T) victor Tourist  over the years, a whole new proving ground gets unearthed when it's your name on the entries.

Instead of letting the pressure wreak havoc with his focus, Brisset feels like the kid in the candy store savoring his trips down the aisle. That is, after all, what years of preparation is supposed to achieve—the ability to reach certain goals and feel entirely comfortable with the process.

"That's what I've been working on all these years with Bill, all that experience," said Brisset, who saddled nine winners from 93 starters prior to Quip's Tampa Bay Derby victory. "I think when you work for those big barns as an assistant trainer and you're so much involved, it's more than just being an assistant. So all those years kind of got me ready for that, and I feel very comfortable because, to me, you do the same thing.

"Of course, we may have a little pressure if we run in the Derby, when we do that walk over and go up to the paddock. There will be more pressure, for sure. But I love it. That's what we wake up in the morning to do. You want to be part of the race. That's what gets you to go forward."

Brisset is nothing if not adept at propelling himself down a desired path.

He didn't grow up in a racing family, but his affinity for horseflesh prompted him to attend the renowned French riding academy AFASEC in Chantilly, France, and he graduated from that program at 16. His jockey career was short-lived due to the physical strain of constantly cutting weight, but his talent in the saddle put him in good stead when he came to the United States in 2005.

After a two-year stint working with Patrick Biancone, Brisset joined Mott's shedrow and became an invaluable fixture in a barn constantly bursting with quality bloodstock. He could get difficult horses to learn lessons that made the difference between becoming a grade 1 performer or an underachiever, and he could just as sharply get naturally blessed mounts to better harness their talents.

He also had the good sense to know when he needed more time to maximize his own ability.

"I could have maybe done it a little earlier, but I don't know that I would have been ready as much as I am now," Brisset said of the decision to go out on his own. "I had a couple people who wanted me to do this a couple years ago, but I'm glad I waited. I'm mature enough now, and I have enough experience.

"I met my wife (Brooke), and I talked to her first. Then I talked to Bill (Mott), which was very difficult. My date was April 1, 2017, and I talked to him in August of 2016 just because I really wanted his advice and his thoughts about it and everything. As usual, he handled it with a lot of class. I think he was actually happy I was going to try."

Through his work with horses like Tourist and Drosselmeyer, Brisset had a built-in relationship with WinStar Farm, Kenny Troutt's powerhouse operation. Brisset's reputation as a horseman was such that WinStar president Elliott Walden offered to send him several of the farm's good 2-year-olds to help get ready last year, with the understanding they would eventually be moved on to more established conditioners.

The opportunity is valuable in its own right, so Brisset made the most of that chance to show what he could do. One of the babies he helped educate before it was sent to trainer Bob Baffert was a chestnut son of Scat Daddy now better known as unbeaten Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Justify. He particularly clicked, however, with a bay son of Distorted Humor who needed some fine handling in order to keep his mind and physical prowess on the same page.

"When (Brisset) went out on his own and he took some stalls at Keeneland, it kind of fit our program to be able to give some of our 2-year-olds a little education on the racetrack," said David Hanley, general manager of WinStar Farm, which bred Quip and owns the colt in partnership with China Horse Club and SF Racing. "(Quip) in particular was always a little bit immature, and on his breezes at the farm, he was a horse who always wanted to do a little bit too much. We felt Rudy was someone who would be able to ride him and manage him and sort of keep the lid on him and not let him do too much too soon.

"The fact he would ride him himself every day, I think Elliott (Walden) found that would give this horse a better chance. As the horse did well with him and settled down and was working nicely, we just sort of left him there. We felt it was in the horse's best interest to leave him with Rudy, and he has done a wonderful job."

Aside from an off outing when he finished seventh in the Nov. 25 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs, Quip has been spot-on in his progression since his debut victory beneath the Twin Spires Sept. 23. His three wins from four starts have come at a trio of different tracks—Churchill, Keeneland, and the often-tricky Tampa Bay Downs—and his natural speed gives jockey Florent Geroux the ability to control his own destiny where the early pace is concerned.

Managing a Kentucky Derby hopeful also means Brisset is trying to keep pace with a phone that is blowing up. Since that Tampa Bay Derby victory, he has gotten more inquiries from potential clients wanting to add to his current roster of about 20 horses.

"Between Quip winning the Tampa Bay Derby and we had a Violence  filly (Talk Veuve to Me) that freaked at Fair Grounds, those two have definitely put us on the map, I guess," Brisset said. "So we'll see what happens. We're not scared about growing. We're going to have a string at Churchill, and we have as many stalls as we want (at Keeneland), and if we have some horses that fit Saratoga, it would be something we consider.

"The main thing is being able to go up like this and stay up there."

His current space is one in which Brisset is very much at home. Where many of his brethren were fretting about the snow in the forecast during the opening weekend of the Keeneland Spring meet, Brisset declared he didn't care "if it snowed two feet," he was that happy to be on the scene with a barn full of potential to draw from.

From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. each morning, he can be found in his element aboard horses he is trying to get the best out of, doing what he knows the only way he knows how.

"A lot of young trainers when they haven't been in that position, it can be pressure and sometimes they can overreact to the pressure. But ... he has been around good horses and been in this spot before," Hanley said. "That is certainly a positive. He knows how to not panic, not do too much. He has that experience of being around good horses and running them in big races."