Exaggerator’s trainer in spotlight for Belmont Stakes

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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, Louisiana, 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 1 1/2 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.”

 

Baffert hoping Arrogate gives him third Dubai World Cup win

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Having taken over the mantle as the world’s best racehorse from California Chrome, Arrogate will attempt on Saturday to wear another crown that last fitted his illustrious American compatriot, the Dubai World Cup.

All eyes are on the 4-year-old Arrogate, who lost on debut 11 months ago but hasn’t lost since.

He’s won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup this year to stretch his unbeaten streak to six. In both races, Arrogate defeated Chrome, who won the Dubai World Cup last year at Meydan Racecourse by five lengths despite jockey Victor Espinoza hanging on to a loose saddle for most of it.

Under jockey Mike Smith, Arrogate has forged a winning combination in his last three Group 1 races: Travers Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup.

In Dubai, they have drawn stall nine among 14 contenders, a position which fails to douse the confidence of his trainer Bob Baffert.

“Nine is fine,” said Baffert, who also trained 2015 U.S. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

“He’s settled in pretty well. As long as he shows up, that’s the key. If he runs his race, we know what he can do.”

Smith was all praise for his mount, ranked the No. 1 racehorse in the world.

“I have been blessed with some really, really good horses, but I am not sure I have ever sit on one like this,” Smith said.

“Everything about him, his disposition, his mechanics, the way he gets over the ground … at times you feel as if you are running downhill instead of a level ground. What amazes me most is when the race is over, it looks as if he did not put much effort into it. His recovery time is so quick.”

Arrogate’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup wins came over 2,000 meters on dirt, the same distance and conditions as the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

Baffert hopes Arrogate can give him a third Dubai World Cup victory after Silver Charm (1998) and Captain Steve (2001).

He suffered a heart attack during his last visit to Dubai in 2012, and watched the World Cup five nights later with stents in two of his blocked arteries. He also watched from even farther afield last year as his other horse, Hoppertunity, finished third behind Chrome and Mike de Kock’s Mubtaahij.

He’s giving Hoppertunity another chance.

“Both my horses are happy and healthy,” Baffert said. “He (Hoppertunity) should be collecting a check again. That is what he does, picks up the pieces in these big races. He reminds me of Pac-Man, he just keeps going. A Dubai World Cup 1-2, that would be something.”

Mubtaahij is also back, although he will start under Christophe Soumillon from the widest of stalls.

“Like everyone, we wanted low,” the Belgian jockey said. “I will have to … hope for some luck.”

The Dubai World Cup features a nine-race card offering $30 million across six Group 1 and three Group 2 races on turf and dirt.

Six three-year-olds nominated late to Triple Crown series

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Thunder Snow, winner of the UAE 2000 Guineas, is among six 3-year-olds made eligible to compete in the Triple Crown series during the late nomination period.

The late nominees, which required a payment of $6,000 each, raise the total nominations to 425 for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The late nomination period closed Monday. The early nomination window closed in January and required a payment of $600.

Ireland-bred Thunder Snow, owned by Godolphin Racing, is set to run Saturday in the $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai. The colt has three wins in seven career starts for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.

The other late nominees are Hollywood Handsome, trained by Dallas Stewart; More Than Words, trained by Charlie LoPresti; Parlor, trained by Eddie Kenneally; Rapid Dial, trained by Ingrid Mason; and Stretch’s Stone, trained by Bruce Levine.

Thoroughbreds that weren’t nominated to the Triple Crown have one final chance by paying a supplemental fee. The fee for the Derby is $200,000; $150,000 for the Preakness; and $75,000 for the Belmont.