Keri Brion Assistant Trainer To Jonathan Sheppard
By Breandán Ó hUallacháin
Six American jumps horses have been based in Ireland since 24 November 2020 as US Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard’s team aims their National Hunt horses at a European campaign.
Overseeing their training and preparation in Ireland is former champion apprentice jumps rider, Keri Brion, who has been assistant trainer in the USA to Englishman Sheppard for the past twelve years.
Brion explained to Past The Wire why the US jumps horses have been brought to Ireland.
“When Covid really took a turn for the worse, our season really got messed up,” she says, “and all the Grade 1 races were cancelled, our season was cut very short. A lot of these horses we had bought the winter before and not a lot of them had really good chances to run. When they cancelled the rest of the Grade 1s that was when we had the idea to bring Winston C over. When we decided we were bringing him a couple of other owners decided they would be happy to take a shot with their horses as well” Keri added.
The team of six horses – Winston C, French Light, Clondaw Camp, Baltimore Bucko, Fancy Pance and Francois – have been based at Baltimore Stables in County Wexford, the base of siblings, James and Ellen Doyle. The Brion relationship with the Doyles goes back a year and a half, with the US woman having previously purchased a number of horses from them.
“I have bought a lot – I think almost ten horses – off of James over the last year,” declares Keri, “I was brought in here a year and a half ago and we bought our first horse. James just picks out quality horses and we’ve gotten a friendship as well as a good working relationship as well.”
Ms. Brion is full of praise for the assistance James Doyle has given her with this trans-Atlantic venture:
“James was good when I was working out the logistics to see if this would even be possible. He actually built new stables on his yard at the back so we’re segregated from his yard which was the only way we would have been allowed to come over and do this. He has been very accommodating and without him I definitely wouldn’t be able to do this at all.”
While in charge of training of the six horses, Keri Brion has been pleasantly surprised by both how well the thoroughbreds have settled in to life in Ireland, as well as being delighted with the fitness and progress of her stock.
“They’re fitter than I thought they would be. They’ve gone to the beach – they galloped six miles on the beach the other day. They have all settled in and I am happy with them. They really have taken to the gallops and everything here in their stride. You wouldn’t know they’ve shipped across the Atlantic.”
Again James Doyle’s knowledge and expertise has been invaluable to Keri, who states:
“Luckily James knows this gallop quite well and he’s been helping me gauge their fitness and how they are doing in terms of their gallop and I’m actually really happy with all of them.”
Despite her delight with the horses, the assistant trainer is quick to point out:
“Of course it is all a learning curve and we’re not going to truly know (how well they are) until they run the first time.”
The recently-crowned jumps champion jockey in the USA, County Kildare-born Gerard Galligan is currently back home in Ireland and will assist in the schooling of the Sheppard horses.
“He’s over here,” Keri explains, “He’s not in every day but he does some schooling. He’s riding Baltimore Bucko and French Light in the first couple of races. John O’Neill, who is James Doyle’s number one jockey and rides here on the point-to-point circuit, is actually going to be riding Winston C on his first start. Tom Garner is his regular jockey but he is out with an injury so John claims seven pounds and I think that will be beneficial to Winston C.”
Outside of Baltimore Stables, Keri Brion has been pleasantly surprised by the welcome she has received from some of Ireland’s top jumps trainers, who as she says are ultimately her rivals during this undertaking in Ireland.
“It’s been great – everyone in this yard has been great and everyone has been really welcoming. I spoke to Henry de Bromhead (multiple Grade 1-winning trainer) at a schooling bumper (National Hunt flat race) the other day and he was super welcoming and he thinks it’s great for the sport what we’re trying to do. Gordon Elliott (former Aintree Grand National-winning handler) stopped in as well. It’s been nice and I know I am their competition as well but it been nice that I have been welcomed and that everyone is really interested to see how it goes as no one has done anything like this before.”
When asked if basing horses in Ireland during the winter to contest races in Europe might become a regular occurrence, Keri offers:
“I wouldn’t say it won’t. I think if we have good luck and we have some success I don’t think it is something I’d say we wouldn’t do again. Obviously a lot is going to depend on how this goes.”
The Pennsylvania native continued:
“I hope we might have a few owners who might want to buy a horse and have him training in Ireland. It could open up new doors for everybody so I think it is really good all round.”
With training licence approval granted in Ireland until 1 April 2021, it could potentially be extended if required in order to compete at both the Fairyhouse Easter Festival and the Punchestown National Hunt Festival late April.
“It is really going to depend on Covid and what it does to our schedule as well. So, for now we’re taking it one step at a time.”
In discussing the state of National Hunt racing in the USA, Ms. Brion feels the sport was in a relatively good position pre-Covid.
“It was heading in a very good direction before Covid. We were able to salvage most of the season which was a credit to the organization and I would hope that moving forward it will get back to what it was before Covid hit – good purse money, more racing and everything else. It has a long way to go before it’s like it is over here in Ireland but you’d like to think it could get to that point.”
With both flat and jumps racing in the USA administered by two completely different organizations, racing on the level has always been stronger and has a greater US-wide profile.
“You’d like to think that jumping racing in America could get to that level (of flat) but a lot of changes are needed and things need to improve with the times to get there,” states Keri. “Hopefully my experience in Ireland can only help our organization to step it up a notch.”
So, realistically what is the aim for your horses while in Ireland?
“It would be really special to get just one winner – I would consider that an overall success. If we could get a couple of wins it would be a dream come true to be honest.”
Speaking about the overall experiment, Keri Brion remarks:
“I hope that it can be literally a win for everybody involved. It will be good for the sport from America’s standpoint and it will be good for the sport in Ireland. It may give other people the idea as well next year. Maybe it will end up being a thing that Americans will come over. It is all going to depend on how we can compete I’d say.”
With the six horses Winston C, French Light, Clondaw Camp, Baltimore Bucko, Fancy Pance and Francois all having been originally bought in Europe, Brion is hopeful as races approach.
“I hope we have selected the right horses. They don’t need to only have good ground. I’m hopeful we have the right stock. We have a little bit of everything – we have a bumper horse, a Grade 1 winner, so hopefully we can get a win or two.”
Let’s hope so.