SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Trainer Keri Brion, who went out on her own last year after working as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard for 11 years, is hopeful she can score a second consecutive victory in her mentor’s namesake Grade 1 event on Wednesday at Saratoga Race Course.
Brion brings a pair of talented geldings to the 2 3/8-mile hurdle test in Historic Heart, a dual stakes-winner in America; and Going Country (IRE), third in two of his three stakes attempts this year.
Returning to the Sheppard is a full-circle moment for Brion, who took last year’s edition with Buttonwood Farm’s subsequent Champion Steeplechaser The Mean Queen (IRE). It was the first year the race, previously run as the New York Turf Writers Cup, was named for the legendary conditioner who retired from training in early 2021 after winning at least one race at Saratoga for 47 consecutive years from 1968 to 2015.
Brion said having success in this event is beyond anything she could imagine as she carries on the training duties for many of Sheppard’s clients.
“Considering I’ve taken over a lot of his owners, I always said it was the race I wanted to win, and I did it last year,” said Brion. “I couldn’t script it and better. It would mean so much to me to win it again and I wish he could be here for it.”
Prior to starting her own training operation, Brion spent more than a decade learning as much as she could from Sheppard, whose top horses include Eclipse Award Champions Forever Together [2008 Champion Grass Mare] and Informed Decision [2009 Champion Female Sprinter]. Recounting the lessons taken from Sheppard, Brion said the horse always came first.
“There’s so much I learned, but the biggest thing was to let them be horses. Happy horses run faster,” said Brion. “The other thing I took from him didn’t come to me until this year: listening to the horses and not the pressure from the owners. I have more horses now and I’ve had to put my foot down a few times. He was always so good at that.”
Brion said listening to the horse is the most important aspect of her job. Going Country, who enters the Sheppard on two week’s rest, is telling her that he’s ready to run a big one in his second start off the layoff.
The son of Yeats showed his ability to run well on short rest when posting maiden and allowance victories in the span of one week earlier this year. He was last seen finishing third in the Jonathan Kiser Memorial on August 3 after a two-month respite.
“Being lightly raced helps when you get to big days, because while he doesn’t have as much experience, he’s not a tired horse,” said Brion. “I’m not entering him just to fill the race – I think he has a good chance. He’s very sound.”
While The Mean Queen is not entered to attempt a title defense in the Sheppard, the 6-year-old daughter of Doyen is in fine order following a 10-month vacation and will make her return to the races soon, though Brion is unsure exactly where.
Brion said she will look for a trip to Cheltenham in March and work backward from there to map out The Mean Queen’s schedule for the rest of the year.
“She’s doing great and mean as ever,” Brion said, with a laugh. “She was never pointed here because of the weight she’d carry coming off the layoff. Cheltenham is in March, so how we get there is the question. I would love to run her in New York, but with these handicaps, the weight is not great for the superstars and it’s a lot of weight to carry. It’s tricky. She has great owners though and I trust we’ll make the right decision.”
NYRA Press Office
Photo: Keri Brion aboard the late Baltimore Bucko, Aug. 2, 2020. (Photo Keri Brion/Facebook by Ellie Rutan)