Steeplechase owners, trainers and officials are always worried that steeplechase racing at Saratoga and Belmont will become a thing of the past due to light entries, races not filling and falls that disturb the fans and upset the betters.
So it is remarkable, and hopefully a good omen, that the first personality chosen by the New York Racing Association for her reflections on a memorable year was a steeplechase trainer - Keri Brion.
Because it is such a hopeful sign that NYRA considered this its most interesting story, perhaps racing will live to compete another day at Saratoga and Belmont, and therefore the entire interview is posted here.
Best of 2021: Keri Brion
OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Just two live race days remain in 2021 to complete a remarkable year of racing action on the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) circuit. The NYRA Press Office checked in with a selection of New York-based racing personalities to get their reflections on the memorable year.
Though steeplechase trainer Keri Brion is based in Virginia when in the U.S. and is currently scouting new racing prospects in Ireland, the 30-year-old conditioner enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2021, sweeping all three of NYRA’s Grade 1 jump races and winning all but one of America’s Grade 1 steeplechase events.
BRION, who worked for 11 years as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, has put together a quality stable in her first year on her own, becoming the first American-based trainer to win on the hurdle circuit in Ireland in April and conditioning Baltimore Bucko and The Mean Queen to Grade 1 wins in the second half of the year.
After picking up her first graded win with Galway Kid in the Grade 3 David Semmes Memorial in May, Brion won her first Grade 1 in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial at Saratoga Race Course in July, visiting the winner’s circle with Baltimore Bucko.
Brion wrapped up 2021 with a record of 14-15-12 from 105 starts and earnings just shy of $800,000, thanks in part to a trio of Grade 1 wins by The Mean Queen in Saratoga’s Jonathan Sheppard Memorial, Belmont Park’s Lonesome Glory, and the Grand National at Far Hills.
How would you summarize your 2021 campaign?
Brion: “It’s still hard to put into words even now. It was some year. It started when I was in Ireland this time last year and took over for Jonathan when he retired. I made history there this year as the first [American based] jumper and hurdle winner. Then I went back to America and won my first graded stakes in May. Things were going well and then Saratoga happened. You couldn’t write that again and it will probably never happen again as long as I live. Being first and second in both Grade 1’s is something I would have never dreamed of. It really helped my career and also to gain the support in the big races. It was important for me to have those horses win at Saratoga. It’s mind blowing.”
How does steeplechase racing in New York compare to other prestigious meets?
Brion: “NYRA is where you dream of racing. Flat racing, jump racing, it doesn’t matter. It’s the best of the sport in America in my opinion. Obviously you’re running for good money and that’s always a big plus. NYRA does an amazing job of supporting steeplechase and we have really good purses for allowances and stakes races which is brilliant. This is my first year training, but going forward, you train for Saratoga. You start in the spring and you know you’re prepping horses for Saratoga. That’s the big stage and where you want to win. To have won both big races there and the Lonesome Glory at Belmont is amazing. There’s not a better place to win a race than in New York.”
What does it take to reach the top level in steeplechase?
Brion: “It’s finding horses of that caliber. I have been lucky enough to have a trainer in Ireland who helps me source horses. It’s helped me get them young and to mold them and bring them along in my own way. Working for Jonathan Sheppard for all those years was the biggest thing. Happy horses really do run the best. The Mean Queen, for instance, ran every month from April to October and stayed sound, healthy, and happy. Listening to the horse as an individual is key. You also can’t be the best if you don’t have the best staff and best owners. Good horses are good horses, but there’s a lot that goes into it as well.”
What advice can you give other women looking to build a career in horse racing?
Brion: “I feel like at this stage now I have gained the respect of a lot of people. I’ve worked very hard to get here and I hope that other women who want to be trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, or anything else in his industry can look to me as an example that women can do it. You can be successful if you work hard.”
Which win this year was the most meaningful to you?
Brion: “It’s a toss-up between the Grand National and the Jonathan Sheppard, but winning the Jonathan Sheppard is the stuff you can’t script. They had renamed that race after Jonathan and I had four runners in it. Three of them were first, second, and third. I was very proud of that and of my horses. It was a summer I will never forget.”
What do you hope to accomplish in 2022 and beyond?
Brion: “I won four of the five American Grade 1’s this year so I really hope to win the Iroquois [at Percy Warner Park] too. I don’t know if that will happen this coming year, but it’s on my list. The biggest thing is to continue at this level. I’m not saying I’m going to keep sweeping four or five Grade 1’s every year, but I just want to be successful at the higher levels. I don’t want this year to be a fluke and I want to continue to prove that I can do it – not just with The Mean Queen, but with other horses.
“When I set out training, I said I would be happy if I could win an Eclipse Award within 10 years of training. Now I’m probably going to be getting on a plane to California in February to get a trophy for the Eclipse Award.”