By Ruth Hewitt
It was just another late spring day for spectators at the Colonial Downs racetrack east of Richmond. But not for trainer Patrick Nüesch of Crozet’s Braeburn Farm. With two of his horses entered to race—Saint Zita, a seven-year-old mare, and Silent Tale, a five-year-old gelding—he was waiting expectantly for the night to unfold.
Nüesch had chosen both races carefully, calculating each competitor his horses were up against, as well as the distance they would run and who would be their jockey. This was Saint Zita’s second race of the year, but tonight Nüesch was trying something a little different. Instead of putting his regular jockey on, he was using a ten-pound “bug” rider, or apprentice jockey. This meant that Zita would be racing with ten fewer pounds than the other horses, but her jockey would in turn have less experience than the other jockeys in the field. It was a gamble, but one Nüesch was willing to take.
Zita broke slow and settled into last place early on, in no rush to challenge the leaders. As the field came into the final turn, Zita shifted gears, coming up on the outside to begin passing other horses. She made it look easy, taking the lead in the stretch to win by a length, all with minimal encouragement from her jockey.
Silent Tale made an equally impressive run, winning by an easy seven lengths, and Nüesch had his photo taken in the winner’s circle twice that evening. Afterwards, he trailered his two horses home to Braeburn Training Center in Crozet.
Nüesch has been around horses most of his life. His father, Felix Nüesch, who is from Switzerland, influenced his passion to train horses. As a young man, Felix was involved with the Swiss cavalry.
“They had to get up every morning and sit the trot for thirty minutes straight,” said Nüesch. “A lot of those boys didn’t know how to ride, so afterwards they would make them break the ice in the fountain, pull down their pants, and stick their butts in the freezing water to toughen up. Some of them got blisters so bad that they would pass out from the pain.”
Felix, one of the few who already knew how to ride, quickly earned respect amongst his peers. When he moved to Virginia, his reputation as an expert horseman continued to grow.
“[Felix] was very well known for his ability to bring a young horse along, and very well liked I might add,” noted Sandy Stuart, a local real estate agent who plays polo with the Roseland Polo Club.
After managing Braeburn for a time, Felix passed the family owned business on to Pat, who is now the part owner and manager of the training facility.
Braeburn has been training thoroughbred racehorses for almost thirty years. Training a young horse to mental and physical maturity is not easy, but Nüesch has developed a method over the years that works. Each interaction he has with a horse, whether on the ground or in the saddle, is well thought out and intentional. The unpredictable thoroughbreds respond positively to his calm, patient manner. Ben Doyle, who owns a filly in training at Braeburn, said that the care his horse receives is exceptional. “Pat says it best, ‘It’s all about the horse.’ He is really honest about what’s going on [with your horse], whether it’s good or bad. Not all trainers are like that.”
Pat’s years of experience and expertise show in the horses he produces and the results that he has, as with Saint Zita and Silent Tale earlier this summer. He brought Zita to Braeburn three years ago. She was in poor condition at the time.
“She needed to put on some serious weight, but she came around pretty quickly. It didn’t take long to realize she was something special,” reflected Nüesch. Zita enjoys her daily TLC at Braeburn, and she is looking forward to retirement in the near future.
A typical day at Braeburn begins at six in the morning. Horses are brought in and fed, stalls are cleaned, and Nüesch takes each horse and jogs them individually without a rider to check for lameness. Then, horses are cleaned and tacked in sets and trained on the track. Nüesch explained that training thoroughbreds requires time and patience.
“They don’t always want to commit [to training]. It’s like a prospective spouse. You need a commitment to make the partnership work,” he said with a grin.
“You’re not being mean. You have to get tough with these guys. If you just sit up there waiting for something to happen, chances are something will, and it won’t be what you wanted. It’s like Vince Lombardi said, ‘The best defense is a good offense.’
Thoroughbreds have remained in the Nüesch family blood. David, Nüesch younger brother, is a retired jockey with approximately 1,200 wins since he began racing in 1986, and, all together, his mounts have earned over $16 million throughout his career. He has ridden for top trainers in multiple countries around the world, and was a stunt rider in the film Seabuscuit and the TV series Luck. Nüesch’s son, Christopher, helps his dad train horses at Braeburn, and has apprenticed at tracks in Chicago as well as Florida, keeping the racing business in the family lineage.