by Allison Conte
Shannon (Murph) Murphy, 2nd trainer to Ron Burke at Gaitway Farm in New Jersey, shared how far the phenom Mission Brief has come.
When did Mission Brief first come into the barn in New Jersey and what was your first impression?
She first came into the barn in May. I thought she was a work in progress (laughs).
What had you heard about her from the Florida crew that trained her down?
Not much really. Ronnie really liked her but she basically had a mind of her own and only stayed trotting when she felt like it.
What did she do the first time you trained her at Gaitway?
She ran all over the track so we took the trotting hopples off her, took everything off her. She hated the trotting hopples. She felt like she just resented them and was mad with them on, she was just mad on the track.
Usually people put trotting hopples on to fix breaking problems, why did she need it the other way?
It’s very odd. She’s probably one of the few horses I’ve ever seen that was just so angry with them on. She didn’t want to trot at all. She felt like she just wanted to step out of them and step out of them. We kept them on probably longer than we should have. Most horses get used to them but she was having no part of it. She’s just a funny horse. Then once we took them off away she went.
Then in Lexington we took all that head gear off, she used to wear a fly mask and all that, and we said screw it. We took a shot, took it all off and she went out and trotted in 1:50.2.
Were you anxious about taking all the head gear off?
A little bit, but she warmed up so good. We trained her twice down there with no mask or anything on, just a plain open bridle and she was perfect. She warmed up perfect that day so he (Ronnie) just said roll the dice, let’s go with it.
What was the biggest challenge in developing her into a racehorse?
Basically calming her down, getting her to not be hot.
Did you ever think this might be an impossible horse to fix?
Is she a hot horse in the barn too?
No, never. She’s a sweetheart in the barn. On the track at first she just wanted to go all out all the time. She just, I wouldn’t say hot, it was just she had a mind of her own. She wanted it her way or no way and now she’s to the point where you can just basically do anything with her.
Was there anything specifically that you think was the key to getting her mind right?
Just repetition, you know, just training her a certain way, following horses, we never put her on the front training. Yannick did a great job with her. That was key, having him drive her all the time.
Was there a certain point when you felt like she turned a corner?
Yeah, she just kept getting better each time she raced. The repetition each time, she’d get more calm going to the gate, more calm, more calm, and now, hopefully, it seems like she’s over it totally. She learned how to be a racehorse instead of just a runaway.
At one point you were the only one in the barn that jogged her, is that still the case?
Oh no, nope. She’s perfect now, she does everything right. Anybody can jog her.
How was her first qualifier?
Her first qualifier she made a break just past the quarter pole. Yannick tried to grab her up to let a horse go and she just wanted no part of it. She just wanted to go a thousand. He said he loved her. She trotted a huge mile after that, we just had to get her mind settled. She was just kind of one way focusing and that was all go.
You’ve trained a ton of good horses for the Burkes, how does she stack up in the list?
She’s probably the nicest trotter I’ve ever sat behind. You can’t compare her to Foiled Again or Sweet Lou or anybody like that, but as far as trotters she’s probably the best they’ve ever had.
Mark Weaver-part owner shared why he took a chance on Mission Brief as a yearling.
How did the decision to buy Mission Brief come about, when your team doesn’t usually buy horses so young?
I think it was $150,000. We had owned her 3/4 brother Southwind Spirit, we bought him the year before. He was the same year as Father Patrick and we really liked him. I think that’s what initially what drew us to her. Then Ronnie loved her when he looked at her. The main thing was that the family is unbelievable and the relation to Southwind Spirit. We were really high on him. He had a great two-year-old year. At the time he was the richest offspring from Muscle Hill and that’s what initially interested us in her.
She was different also because in general we’re not thought of as a trotting operation especially with two-year-olds, but we did spend more money than ever before last yearling season and we even upped it a little more this season and a lot of that was on trotters. I believe we have the best 2-year-old trotting filly with Mission Brief and I think we have the best two-year-old trotting colt with Habitat. We had a lot of good ones qualify and it was just kind of a pleasant surprise that a lot of them were trotters. We’ve had success with the pacers in the past but not developing trotters from the get-go. If you read the news print it seems like you have to be from Sweden to get a trotter to go, so it was nice that an American guy could show that he can train two-year-old trotters as well.
Were you aware of the trouble they had with her down in Florida?
I try not to get too involved in March with who may be a world beater and then when the money is on the line they’re nothing. So I try not to get too many opinions until they come up and qualify. I did hear about her just because of the amount. At the time I think she was the most expensive yearling we had ever bought. I think she basically made a break every time training down. Ronnie would say, “She’s unbelievable but we can’t keep her flat.”
At some point she just kind of put it together. She definitely wasn’t one that we were confident with all along. Ronnie knew the talent was there but it’s always just been a mental battle with her. Knock on wood it looks like she’s put it together!
When was the first time that she really made an impression on you?
The first time I saw her race live was on Hambo Day in the Merrie Annabelle and she was amazing. In the winners circle I said to Murph, “She may be able to win the Hambletonian next year,” and he joked, he said, “Next year? I think she could win it today.” That was kind of a funny statement but she’s, you know, I hate to use the word “freak” because some people think of that in negative terms, but what she does is just scary. She’s just faster. She’s got the breeding and she’s got everything you want, if she can keep her head on straight who knows what she can do.
Does she still make you nervous going behind the gate?
Oh yeah. I’m not a fan of trotters in general. I shouldn’t say I’m not a fan, I’m just aware of the risks. It is what it is. She made a break going for $400,000 in Canada last month and then came back and I believe it was the next race, she won at Lexington. It is what it is and I understand that it’s part of the game but it’s certainly a different level of anxiety with two-year-old trotters versus when Foiled Again goes to the gate.
I still get anxious, but I’m just worried about him continuing to do what he does, I’m not really factoring in a break. With her it’s a different type of nervous or anxiousness.
She definitely redeemed herself at Lexington.
You know, I don’t usually get up until 10 o’clock. I’m not a morning person. I grew up in Southern California and I always say I’m still on California time. But on Thursday when we were going down to Lexington I told my buddy, “I want to leave at 6:30 in the morning to make sure we’re there to watch Mission Brief.” They said, “Are you crazy, what’s wrong with you? Since when do you get up at 6:30 am?”
I just feel that she’s a special filly, I wanted to be there. You just feel like something special is possible. It takes a lot to get me moving that early, but I was glad I was there. The track was not even that fast that day and there was a head wind in the stretch. It was something that I hope people appreciated. I remember seeing Snow White, when she was a two-year-old go in 1:52 and change and I said, “That’s ridiculous! How can a two-year-old trotting filly do that?” And then Mission Brief goes ten lengths faster. She’s just phenomenal.
What are your hopes for her for next year?
We leave most of that stuff up to Ronnie. I mean, I’ve kind of always been taught that as two-year-olds maybe the fillies develop a little quicker than the boys, so it’s not really a true test to say that she could maybe beat the boys this year. It’s a whole different thing the first week of August next year. We just take it one week at a time and if at some point we feel it makes sense for her, financially and for her resume, to take on the boys either in the Hambo or another race, maybe we would do it. I don’t know though, we also have Habitat. To me he’s the best two-year-old trotting colt right now and it’s very similar ownership to her, and we can’t race him in the Hambletonian Oaks, you know. If they’re both good at that time that might play into the decision too. We’ll just play it by ear. No real expectations, we just hope she finishes this year strong and trains down well next year and keeps her head on straight. We’ll go from there.