At 34 years old, Rodolphe Brisset has spent exactly one year as a head trainer, and yet it is a wealth of experience that explains how the French native already finds himself with a colt on the brink of the Kentucky Derby.
Brisset was barely a teenager when he began building for his opportunity with Quip, who will run Saturday in Oaklawn Park's Grade 1 Arkansas Derby after scoring an upset triumph in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.
The journey for Brisset began at age 14 when he left his parents' home to enroll at the French Jockey Academy, which paved the way for five years riding races, a single season as an agent for a champion jockey and a pivotal decision when he moved to the U.S. in late 2004. The person inviting him was none other than Julien Leparoux, who was an exercise rider at the time for trainer Patrick Biancone and had yet to begin his successful career as a jockey. Brisset was good friends with Leparoux's sister and Leparoux recruited him for Biancone's staff.
"I had only met Julien a few times in France," Brisset said. "Now he is like my brother here. I like to joke that I should sue my parents because I was born in the wrong country. From my first day here, I have loved America. I love the racing here and everything fit me, really. It didn't take me long [to see that] and I still feel that way after 13 or 14 years."
In America, from day one, Brisset had the chance to work with exceptional horses: Henny Hughes, Gorella, and Angara with Biancone, and a seemingly endless list during nine years with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, from Drosselmeyer and To Honor and Serve to leading ladies Unrivaled Belle and Royal Delta, who Brisset singled out as the most talented horse he has been around.
"She was amazing, both in the morning and in the afternoon," he said of the three-time champion and two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic (now Distaff). "In her races, she could sometimes be a little difficult but there's no doubt she was something special."
Brisset had a long-term plan to open his stable and made the plunge in the spring of 2017. He quickly found support from Drosselmeyer's owner, WinStar Farm, which bred Quip and sent the colt to Brisset at Keeneland last summer. Right around the same time, Brisset notched his first career victory, appropriately enough with a horse ridden by Leparoux.
"That was a special day," said Leparoux, who lived with Brisset for a couple years when they worked for Biancone. "Of course he is a trainer and it is a business, but first of all he is my friend, and I am happy for him. He has worked hard for a long time for this. He is a work addict. For me, I know he takes his job serious and is a professional, but he is also is very funny and a great person to be around."
Brisset said Quip showed talent right away but was a bit of a handful on the track in the morning, while a perfect gentleman around the barn. He was 11-to-1 for his debut over 6 furlongs at Churchill Downs in September and delivered a game performance to prevail by a head. A month later, he stretched out around two turns and stormed off by 6 ½ lengths in a Keeneland allowance.
"He had showed us some quality and he kept on improving," said Brisset, who paired Quip with another top-flight French jockey in Florent Geroux. "Having worked for Bill Mott all that time, it is not our way to have a horse cranked up to win by 10 lengths first time out, and so for him to get up to win his first start and then win again at Keeneland, it showed a lot of class because he was still a big baby."
Nudged into the deep end, Quip was the third choice at 5-to-1 in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on November 25 but never landed a blow after settling farther back the usual, finishing seventh of 14 in what has turned out to be a key race that has also produced the winners of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes, and the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes.
"I think that was a case that if you had run the race 10 times there would have been 10 different winners," Brisset said. "Everything went wrong for us from the get-go. I over-thought the race and put too much focus on there being a lot of speed in the race on paper. If had a chance to do it over, maybe we would have changed our approach, but that was last year and these were still green 2-year-olds. We have a different horse this year as he has matured."
Quip made amends at 19-to-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 10 in his lone start as a 3-year-old, pressing the pace and stubbornly turning back Flameaway in the stretch to win by a length and provide Brisset with his first stakes victory.
The son of Distorted Humor has turned in three sharp workouts since then, gearing up for the Arkansas Derby and with the Kentucky Derby in sight on the first Saturday in May.
"He had a good bottom into him for the Tampa Bay Derby and I am sure the race had picked him up since then," Brisset said. "He has put in two good breezes and we like our chances for Saturday."
Two weeks after the Tampa Bay Derby, Brisset enjoyed another highlight when the first horse to enter his barn last spring, the filly Talk Veuve To Me, rumbled to an 11 1/4-length maiden win at Fair Grounds in her second career start.
"She just had the one race at 2 and we did the right thing for her and gave her plenty of time, so that was very exciting to see her run like that in her first race at 3," said Brisset, who has 20 horses in his care at the moment.
Mott, for one, is hardly surprised to see his former assistant make his presence felt so quickly.
"He is just a good rider and a good horseman, with a lot of experience with nice horses, so it's no surprise," Mott said. "This was the next thing for him and he is making his way."