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.”

 

Penny Chenery, owner of Triple Crown champ Secretariat, dies

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Penny Chenery, who bred and raced 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat as well as realizing her ailing father’s dream to win the Kentucky Derby in 1972 with Riva Ridge, has died. She was 95.

Chenery died Saturday in her Boulder, Colorado, home following complications from a stroke, according to her children. They announced her death Sunday through Leonard Lusky, her longtime friend and business partner.

In 1973, Secretariat captured the imagination of racing fans worldwide when he became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. He won the last leg by a whopping 31 lengths in one of the greatest performances in sports history.

The previous year, Riva Ridge won the Derby and Belmont Stakes.

Both colts were inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

“We are deeply proud of our mother, her accomplishments, and her courage,” daughter Kate Tweedy said. “As we mourn her loss, the example of her strength, her intelligence and her enduring spirit continue to inspire us.”

Chenery developed a love of horses as a child and learned to ride at age 5. She attributed her affinity for horses to her father, Christopher Chenery, who founded Meadow Stable, a thoroughbred racing and breeding operation, in Caroline County, Virginia.

After graduating from Smith College in 1943, Chenery worked as an assistant for a company that designed landing craft for the Normandy invasion. Before the invasion, she quit her job and at her father’s urging, she volunteered for the Red Cross. In 1945, Chenery traveled to France as a Doughnut Girl to help war-weary soldiers transition to ships headed home at the end of World War II.

Chenery returned from Europe in 1946, and at her father’s urging, she attended Columbia University’s business school, where she was one of 20 women in her class. Six months from graduation, she got engaged to Columbia Law graduate John “Jack” Tweedy. Her father encouraged her to quit and focus on her wedding. The couple married in 1949.

For nearly 20 years, Chenery was content to be a housewife and mother to the couple’s four children in the Denver area. She and her husband helped found and raise the initial money for Vail ski resort in the early 1960s.

Her life changed in 1968 when her father’s health and mind began failing and her mother died. His Meadow Stable, which had been profitable, began losing money. Her two siblings had planned to sell it when their father could no longer run the operation.

Chenery took over management of the racing stable, with the help of siblings Margaret Carmichael and Hollis Chenery, and her father’s business secretary. The operation was losing money and few took her seriously. Chenery commuted monthly from Colorado to Virginia, but after two more years in the red, selling the stable seemed almost inevitable.

By 1971, her colt Riva Ridge swept the juvenile stakes and won 2-year-old of the Year honors. In 1972, Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby, fulfilling her father’s dream in the last year of his life. That same year, Secretariat burst onto the scene, so dominating the 2-year-old races that he won Horse of the Year honors.

In 1973, Secretariat became a pop culture icon with his Triple Crown victory, landing on the cover of Time magazine. For the next four decades, Chenery served as a careful steward of the colt’s legacy.

She charmed as an engaging and quick-witted owner who represented her equine champions with poise, dignity and a keen business sense.

“The horse can’t talk, but I can,” she said.

Chenery was portrayed by actress Diane Lane in the 2010 movie “Secretariat.” Chenery had a cameo role as a spectator at the Belmont Stakes.

“We have always been overwhelmed and amazed by the love and support Mom received from her many fans,” son John Tweedy said.

Born Helen Bates Chenery on Jan. 27, 1922, in New Rochelle, New York, she was the youngest of three children of Christopher and Helen Chenery, for whom she was named.

Following Secretariat’s retirement, Chenery became an ambassador for thoroughbred racing and remained so after the colt’s death in 1989.

She served as the first female president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. She became one of the first women admitted to The Jockey Club and helped found the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

Chenery created the Secretariat Vox Populi award annually honoring racing’s most popular horse, as well as the Secretariat Foundation, which assists and supports various charities within the racing community.

She received the 2006 Eclipse Award of Merit for lifetime contributions to the thoroughbred industry, and in recent years, she advocated for laminitis research and care advancement as well as efforts to ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs in racing.

Chenery’s marriages to Tweedy and Lennart Ringquist ended in divorce. She is survived by her children from her marriage to Tweedy: Sarah Manning, Kate, Chris and John. Her other survivors are seven grandchildren and stepson Jon Ringquist.

Lusky said a public memorial was pending.

Meet offers Breeders’ Cup, Kentucky Derby, Oaks qualifiers

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Churchill Downs’ opening weekend features stakes races awarding points toward the Kentucky Derby and Oaks along with berths in the Breeders’ Cup.

The $200,000 Grade 2 Pocahontas for 2-year-old fillies and $150,000 Grade 3 Iroquois for juvenile colts headline four stakes races on Saturday. The winners of both 1 1/16-mile stakes automatically qualify for the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar on Nov. 4 and earn 10 points toward the Derby and Oaks.

Dale Romans meanwhile can surpass Hall of Famer Bill Mott as Churchill’s winningest trainer with three horses entered on Friday’s 10-race opening card. Romans’ 699 career wins are just two behind the 63-year-old Mott, who has held the mark for 31 years.

Racing will occur Thursdays to Sundays through Oct. 1 with a 12:45 p.m. first post most days.