By Richard Rosenblatt
AP Racing Writer
NEW YORK — While he always says he’s thankful just for being able to train horses, Keith Desormeaux stops short of characterizing his newfound success as a dream come true.
“I guess it would be, if I didn’t think we could accomplish it,” Desormeaux said as he stood near the finish line at Belmont Park, where his Preakness winner Exaggerator is set to take on 12 challengers Saturday in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. “It’s a realization of many years of trying to get the best out of a horse so that we could reach this goal.”
It took a while. More than a quarter-century, in fact, of toiling light-years away from the spotlight shared by trainers such as Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher and at racetracks such as Delta Downs, Evangeline Downs and Retama Park, finally settling in Southern California.
“This is a culmination of a lifetime of applying myself to horsemanship and finding value,” he said, “and to not only get there but to win one in my first evolution in the Triple Crown series is pretty gratifying.”
For his brother, too. The more famous one — Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux, the jockey with over 5,700 wins, including three in the Kentucky Derby, in a career sidetracked at times by alcohol problems. Kent said he’s always admired Keith and is glad his brother has finally moved into the racing spotlight and that he’s aboard for the ride.
“Now we get to hear from him because his horses are beating everyone else’s horses,” Kent said. “I’m glad he can now have a voice because he can really train, obviously.”
Keith has never really had owners with deep pockets, so it was not easy to get into top races with less than first-class stock. However, he knew it could be done. Real Quiet cost $17,000 and came within a nose of a Triple Crown in 1998; Funny Cide, purchased for $22,000, won the 2003 Derby and Preakness; and Mine That Bird, who went for $9,500, won the 2009 Derby.
“I just saw time and again the horses that make it to that level aren’t always the blue bloods,” he said, “and I had to figure out a way to do it myself.”
He did it, he said, because he “survived by learning how to identify nice horses for cheap prices.”
And then he met Matt Bryan. The Texas businessman who heads up Big Chief Racing, an owner of Exaggerator, first met Keith at a horse sale in 2012. A year later, they had become good friends, and pulled off an astonishing upset in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, winning with Ive Struck a Nerve at odds of 135-1.
“I watched him. His work was there, his eye was there and it was just getting money behind him that was needed,” Bryan said. “You can see his love of the game, and his horsemanship. He’s a breath of fresh air.”
The brothers grew up around horses on the family farm in Maurice, La., the oldest of six children. Keith graduated from Louisiana Tech with a degree in animal science. Kent was riding in Maryland and making a name for himself, and Keith soon joined him there, knowing he wanted to become a trainer. They went their own ways.
Julie Clark, Keith’s girlfriend and assistant trainer, says he “just needed things to come together at the right time, and they have. I know he’s enjoying every minute of this.”
After starting his training career in 1988, Keith finally won his first Grade 1 race in 2014 when Texas Red took the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. An early Derby favorite, the colt was injured and missed the Triple Crown. Last year, after he had picked out Exaggerator at a sale — for $110,000 for Bryan — the colt began paying dividends.
A son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, the powerfully built bay won the Saratoga Special and closed out his 2-year-old campaign with a win in the Delta Downs Jackpot. From there, he went on to win the Santa Anita Derby, ran second to Nyquist in the Kentucky Derby and two weeks later beat him in the Preakness.
Exaggerator is the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the Belmont, also known as the “Test of the Champion” because it is the final leg of the Triple Crown and at 1½ miles is the longest distance a horse will likely ever run.
Keith Desormeaux says it’s rewarding to be in big races after all these years. He’s not kidding. In a career that began in 1988, he’s sent out 3,751 starters for total earnings of $18.7 million. Exaggerator has 11 starts for earnings of $2,971,120.
A year ago, American Pharoah rocked the house in winning the Belmont to give racing its first Triple Crown champion in 37 years. The stakes may not be as high on Saturday, but for Keith Desormeaux it’s a magical ride a long time coming.
“I’ve always been very patient and always confident this time would come,” Keith said, “And thank God those perceptions were true.”