For more than 20 years, Keith Desormeaux labored in relative obscurity in horse racing’s trenches, far from the glory of the Pimlico infield winner’s circle that Exaggerator brought him to after Saturday’s victory in the 141st running of the Preakness.
Shortly after the trophy presentation and national television interviews were over, Desormeaux reflected on what it meant to win a Triple Crown race, “an American classic” he called it. Sitting alongside his famous younger brother Kent, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode Exaggerator to victory, he talked about feeling an “awesome confirmation of a lifetime of dedicating myself to finding and getting the best out of a horse.” He spoke of gratitude toward Matt Bryan, one of Exaggerator’s owners, the person who saw something in Keith Desormeaux that allowed him to get his first big break as a trainer.
There were some lean years for Desormeaux – decades really – after saddling his first horse in 1988, a Colorado-bred named Spy Cliff who also provided the Louisiana native with his first winner while he completed his animal science studies at Louisiana Tech University.
That was the year after Kent won an Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey, and the year before he would set a record with 597 wins in a single season, his mounts earning more than $9 million.
In 1990, Keith’s first full year as a public trainer after working in Maryland as an assistant to the respected horseman Charlie Hadry, he won two races from 44 starts, his horses earning $26,131.Kent continued to ascend as one of the sport’s top jockeys, winning Kentucky Derbies and Eclipse Awards and riding titles. Keith scratched out a living while cheering his brother on from a distance, learning his craft and hoping to one day have the opportunity to compete at that level.
“It was unadulterated pride,” Keith said of Kent’s successes. “There was no animosity and it never frustrated me to see Kent at the highest level. What he accomplished was no surprise to me. It was easy to understand. We are in two different unique skill sets: my end is more intellectual and persistent; he’s an athlete – and I’m no athlete.”
By the traditional measurements of races and money won, Keith Desormeaux’s career was, to use a horseracing term, slow to get into stride. It wasn’t until his eighth year training that the stable’s earnings hit six figures. He fell just short of $1 million in purses won in 2000, but 10 years later his starters earned just $429,213.
Desormeaux watched as one of his former assistants, Tim Ice, won the 2009 Belmont Stakes with Summer Bird. He was starting to have second thoughts about his own career path.
“I would not be honest if I said there weren’t some times I had doubts,” he said. “That situation came up in its fullest, in 2008, when we had the great recession. Owning racehorses is a perk, something extra; it’s not the kind of business you put your retirement funds in. So when the economy busted, people didn’t spend money on horses any more. I was down to eight horses, and I was saying, ‘Man, maybe it’s time to move on.’ We buckled down, and necessity is the mother of invention, so one of my friends came up with Don’t Tell My Wife Stable. We did a lease deal, didn’t send any bills (to the partnership investors) and lived off the purse money. It was a stage where I had better become a sharp horseman.”
Desormeaux doesn’t want anyone to think he was “broke and downtrodden,” as he puts it. Money from public and private sales helped supplement his income.
“I would venture to say I was very happy during those years,” he added, “although I knew that I wouldn’t mind having a bit more financial security.
“As I look back on it now, it was great preparation for when I got the right opportunity. And when I say opportunity, I mean an investor with the resources and enthusiasm. I never had that before. Those 20 years were an education, and I’m thankful I didn’t have to abuse someone’s resources to learn. When the time came, I was ready. You’re now seeing the product of what I said: a lifetime of work. I’m doing my best not to screw up Matt Bryan’s trust.”
Desormeaux was introduced to Bryan at a sale of 2-year-olds in training at Lone Star Park in Texas. “We hit it off right away,” Desormeaux said. “Cut from the same cloth: real practical, not a lot of hot air, and we understand each other.”
His first public auction purchase for Bryan was Ive Struck a Nerve, an $82,000 OBS April 2-year-old graduate in 2012 who would win the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds the following year. They were off and running.
Two years ago, Desormeaux found Swipe for just $5,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Racing for Bryan’s Big Chief Racing and partners, the son of Birdstone became a stakes winner with earnings of more than $600,000. In four of his races, he finished second to Nyquist, the 2-year-old champion of 2015 and Kentucky Derby winner that Exaggerator beat on Saturday.
Desormeaux bought a dozen horses for Big Chief Racing in 2015 for an average price of $37,853. In 2014, 11 purchases averaged $45,182, and in 2013, 10 averaged $45,200.
“I look for three simple traits: athleticism, balance and class,” Desormeaux said. “The class is the intangible part, you need to read between the lines looking at pedigrees. There are some conformation issues you can put up with that some might see as an absolute detractor. Swipe – I don’t like to use the word swayback – but he had a long dip in his back that he totally grew out of.
“I’ve survived by learning how to identify nice horses for cheap prices.”
“We’re blessed to have Keith Desormeaux picking out these horses,” Bryan said at Saturday’s post-race press conference. “We’ll put him in the Hall of Fame if I have anything to do with it.”
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