Keri Brion’s Fair Hill Training Center operation began in January, without her.
She spent the winter in Ireland with a string of horses and an eye out for jumpers to bring to America, collecting wins with new pickups The Mean Queen over hurdles and Scorpion’s Revenge in a flat bumper.
On Memorial Day, the trainer celebrated her first American wins of 2021 (and the second and third of her career) with a double at the Virginia Gold Cup two days earlier. Plenty of work from Fair Hill to Ireland went into victories by The Mean Queen in an allowance hurdle and Galway Kid in the David Semmes Memorial hurdle stakes May 29. A week later, Brion scored again with a maiden win by Chetzeron at the Tryon Block House Races in North Carolina.
Brion, assistant to the recently retired Jonathan Sheppard during a championship season in 2020, refers to anything learned from the Hall of Fame trainer as a “Jonathan thing.” Her Fair Hill operation is full of them, including a specific post-race leg-wrapping technique used on the Gold Cup Day winners.
“There’s, well, a lot of them,” Brion said, in reference to bits of training wisdom she remembers every day. “I try to take as much as I can really.”
Brion took over the majority of Sheppard’s horses after his retirement, a privilege not lost on her.
“How lucky am I to just take over with these horses?” Brion asked, in reference to Grade 1 winner Winston C and five-time hurdle winner Iranistan, stabled around the corner from each other in the Fair Hill barn. Both aim to return to racing this summer. Baltimore Bucko, part of the winter string in Ireland and winner of a training flat race at Winterthur May 30, aims for the novice stakes in Nashville June 26.
Brion’s Fair Hill barn includes 27 horses, a fairly diverse crowd of steeplechsers and flat horses at all stages of their careers.
Two days after his win in Virginia, Hudson River Farm’s Galway Kid spent time turned out, stretching in the Fair Hill sun. The Irish-bred son of Sholokhov earned his rest in the Semmes, holding off Gibralfaro and Bedrock to win the $50,000 stakes by a neck and collect his fourth score in eight starts since making his debut as a 3-year-old in 2019.
Back in the barn, Buttonwood Farm’s The Mean Queen waited her turn, somewhat impatiently. “She’s named . . . very well,” Brion said of the attitude.
The 5-year-old mare made two Irish point-to-point starts in the fall of 2020, and met Brion when the trainer made her Irish trek after the American season ended. The daughter of Doyen finished second on the flat, then won a maiden hurdle at Wexford in April as Brion became the answer to a trivia question as the first American trainer to win an Irish jump race. At the Gold Cup, The Mean Queen thumped five male rivals in a $30,000 allowance hurdle – winning by 8 lengths in her U.S. debut.
She got her turnout time eventually, as the Gold Cup runners enjoyed a light few days before getting back to work late in the week.
As for Brion’s Monday, she rode unraced 3-year-old Urban Myth and prepared to school hurdle horses later in the morning. Her Fair Hill barn, now in its sixth month of operation, runs like a mainstay.
“You’d be hard pressed to get me out of here,” she said of the Maryland training center, also home to some of the country’s best flat horses. “After this weekend, I think we figured out what works here.”
Saddle towels and helmet covers are black and teal, with a “KB” emblem on each. Brion had decided on the colors a long time ago. In January, she made the leap from across the Atlantic. In her absence, assistant Amber Hodyka set up the horses at the Fair Hill barn.
Months later, Brion’s barn celebrated back-to-back successful weekends and looked toward future as the jump season moves on to the rich Iroquois meet June 26 and then the summer at Colonial Downs and Saratoga. She credited growing pains, the new neighborhood, and – of course – those “Jonathan things.”