LEXINGTON, Ky. — A bay colt named Quip, who stands 16 hands and weighs 1,030 pounds, woke up in his 12-foot-by-12-foot stall in Barn 72 at the back end of Keeneland racetrack here at 3:30 a.m. on a Friday in mid-April.
He spent the final two furlongs of the race in what humans might call a dogfight for second. That race he won. But it took a toll on him.
Unlike after he’d won the Tampa Bay Derby in March, when he’d returned to full strength within 24 hours, Quip was slow to recover. In the days that followed, his appetite flagged. It took him longer than usual to eat his meals; he left some of them behind. He’d lost weight, enough that his trainer, 34-year-old Rodolphe Brisset, could notice at a glance. A blood test came back negative, but still Brisset lightened Quip’s workload for a few days, replacing his usual mile-and-a-half gallop with a light jog.
Quip was entered to run in the Kentucky Derby in two weeks’ time, but now that was being reconsidered. That Friday in April, Brisset would gallop Quip for the first time since he had raced the weekend before.
Determining when to gallop and when to breeze (horse-speak for a hard workout), the distance of those runs and their intensity, and when not to do them is the racing-horse trainer’s job. But such decisions aren’t simple ones to make. “Horses don’t talk,” Brisset said. “That’s the only thing they do different from us. So you’ve got to read the signs. You’ve got to let them tell you. And then you come up with a plan.”
Quip’s training plan began four years earlier at WinStar Farm, 10 miles outside of Lexington, in Versailles, Kentucky. The farm consists of 2,700 acres of rolling hills, lush grazing fields, black synthetic racetracks and breeding sheds, and is dotted with ponds and stone-lined bridges. It’s idyllic for a human, and presumably for a horse, too. Quip was conceived there, both literally and conceptually.
Every fall, “there’s about four of us that get in the boardroom and spend eight hours a day trying to make a Derby winner,” said Sean Tugel, WinStar’s director of bloodstock services. “We sit down with the pedigree analysts. We study what blood works with what blood in mares and stallions, and we try to breed the best.”
The pairing that produced Quip matched Distorted Humor, a now 26-year-old stallion, with Princess Ash, a 9-year-old former sprinter. Distorted Humor had already sired a Kentucky Derby winner, Funny Cide, the 2003 champion; Princess Ash’s father, Indian Charlie, had a breeding line that was performing well. Quip is Princess Ash’s first offspring.
When Quip began training, at 1 1/2 years old, he was no instant success. He liked to run, but only on his terms — as opposed to when and how his rider asked him to.
“The key with Quip was to get him to relax and be doing the right pace that you want him to do,” said Richard Budge, WinStar’s farm trainer, who worked extensively with Quip in his first months of training.
Budge had Quip run his early workouts uphill instead of around the level track, to make it more difficult for the horse to run as quickly as he liked. When he took Quip to the oval, he had him run by himself rather than with other horses so he’d be less aggressive, and on occasion he’d train him clockwise instead of the standard counterclockwise so that he wouldn’t fully anticipate a workout.
By the time Quip was 2 and able to breeze three-eighths of a mile, WinStar sent him down the road to Brisset, who, after working as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott for 10 years, had just opened his own barn.
Brisset found Quip to be “quirky” when he first arrived. “He was a horse who wants to be a little king,” French-born Brisset said in his office a few feet from Quip’s stall. “He wanted to do a little too much. He thought, OK, they want me to go, I’m going. We want you to go, but we want you to go smarter.”
As Brisset steadily increased the distance and intensity of Quip’s breezes, he learned quickly that he couldn’t run the horse on the inside of another horse because Quip would take off like a rocket. “Sometimes you have no choice but to go the horse’s way,” said Brisset, who in training rides most of the 25 horses in his barn. “We adapted to him.”
For nearly the first two months of Quip’s workouts, Brisset breezed the colt just off the shoulder of his training partner but never allowed him to pass the other horse. If he did, Brisset found again that he couldn’t rein him in. As Quip eventually began to display patience, Brisset let Quip inch ahead of his training partner before he steadied him again so that he’d stay in that position. He was attempting to create a dialogue between horse and rider and, ideally, develop a horse that is easy to ride; former jockey and NBC racing analyst Jerry Bailey called that attribute one of the most important of a successful racehorse.
“Horses that you can move and then they’ll idle again for you, that give you just what you want and no more, those are the best to ride and they’re the most effective,” Bailey said. “And they’re really rare.”
“The more stable a horse is mentally, the more apt they are to be able to do that,” he added.
The best way to keep a horse mentally stable is not to overwork him, said Shug McGaughey, 67, the Hall of Fame trainer of Orb, the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner. If horses begin to show “nerves,” McGaughey said, it could mean that their mindset has changed. “They might get a little bit hesitant to go to the track, get a little sweaty.”
Thoroughbred training is built on routine. When that routine is breached, it has meaning. The trainer’s job is less about making a horse greater than the sum of its parts than it is about discovering the sum of those parts. “We cannot make them run faster than they can run,” McGaughey said from his barn at Belmont Park during a telephone interview.
On that Friday in mid-April, when Brisset took Quip for his first gallop following the Arkansas Derby, the horse climbed the quarter-mile dirt road from the barn to the racetrack in the company of his stable pony, Jonas. It was just past daybreak, and the sun was creeping over the grandstand. When Quip stepped onto the track, he didn’t buck, which, as a young, aggressive 3-year-old colt who is typically eager to run, he often did. Brisset took note.
Quip set off down the backstretch on his mile-long gallop, comfortably hitting each furlong in about 18 seconds, his normal galloping pace. (In breezes and during races, he’ll usually run them in roughly 12 seconds.) As the weekend progressed, though, Quip still didn’t exhibit the energy Brisset wanted from him. After consultation with WinStar, Quip’s majority owner, Brisset withdrew the horse from the Kentucky Derby and instead pointed him toward the Preakness, on May 19.
After Justify, another WinStar horse, won the Kentucky Derby and became a Triple Crown threat, the decision to run Quip in the Preakness was revisited. WinStar officials decided to enter him in the field.
“With five weeks’ rest,” Brisset said, doing the math from the Arkansas Derby to the Preakness, “the horse will be fine.”
“My job is to get the horse to the race sound, fit, relaxed and ready to run,” he said. “After that, it’s up to the horse and the jockey.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.