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.”

 

Bob Baffert sweeps Futurity and Starlet at Los Alamitos

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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. (AP) Bob Baffert became the first trainer to win the $300,000 CashCall Futurity and $294,000 Starlet in the same year at Los Alamitos on Saturday.

McKinzie won the Futurity for 2-year-olds via disqualification after Solomini, Baffert’s other entry in the race, was cited by the stewards for interference in deep stretch and dropped from first to third.

In the next race, 2-5 favorite Dream Tree won the Starlet by 3 1/4 lengths to improve to 3-0 for the Hall of Fame trainer.

Baffert has won the Futurity a record 10 times, including the last four at Los Alamitos, where it was moved from now-closed Hollywood Park, where he won it six times.

McKinzie, named for Baffert’s late friend and Los Alamitos executive Brad McKinzie, was carried wide into the first turn and kept clear by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. McKinzie rallied approaching the stretch in tandem with Instilled Regard while Solomini started to gain outside of that pair.

The three horses came together and with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Solomini came in and bumped Instilled Regard before going on to finish three-quarters of a length in front of McKinzie, who was a head in front of Instilled Regard.

Baffert was surprised when the three stewards voted 2-1 to disqualify Solomini.

“It’s really too bad they took him down,” he said. “He was the better horse today.”

McKinzie returned $3 and $2.40. Instilled Regard paid $6.80. There was no show wagering because of the small field.

The final time for the Futurity was 1:42.57. McKinzie earned $180,000, increasing his career earnings to $210,000.

In the Starlet for 2-year-old fillies, Dream Tree and jockey Drayden Van Dyke covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.87 and paid $2.80 to win. It was Baffert’s fourth career win in the race.

Yesterday’s News was second and Piedi Bianchi was third.

Trainers rushed to save terrified horses as flames closed in

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BONSALL, Calif. — A routine day at an elite training center for racehorses transformed into terror and chaos in minutes, with hundreds of thoroughbreds stampeding out of their stalls in a desperate attempt to flee a Southern California wildfire that set their barns ablaze.

Turned loose by their trainers in a last-ditch effort to save their lives, the huge, muscular animals, their eyes wide with fear, charged through thick smoke and past dancing flames.

While hundreds made it to the safety of a nearby racetrack, others galloped in circles, unsure which way to run. Still others, too frightened to leave their paddocks, stayed there and died.

Workers at San Luis Rey Downs said an estimated 30 to 40 horses perished Thursday in the wildfire still raging out of control north of San Diego on Friday. At least two stable workers were injured, and their conditions were not immediately known.

Trainers described a terrifying scene that erupted at the facility Thursday afternoon, recalling how only minutes after smelling smoke, they saw flames roaring down a nearby hillside.

“I was heading to my barn to drop my equipment off and I smell smoke,” trainer Kim Marrs said Friday as she stood outside the still-smoldering facility. “Within two minutes, I look up the hill and you could just see it come up over the ridge.”

She and others tried to turn back the flames with hoses and fire extinguishers before firefighters arrived. But when embers from burning palm trees began igniting the roofs of barns, they realized they had no other alternative than to turn loose the approximately 450 horses stabled there.

“The next thing, there’s a stampede of 100 horses coming through here,” said Marrs, who was trying to lead one of the horses she trains, a 5-year-old named Spirit World, through a tunnel. “We almost got trampled to death.”

At one of the center’s many barns, video showed a group of trainers frantically tearing down a wooden fence and shouting at their horses to run.

One large black horse, its forelocks wrapped in white leggings, bolted toward safety but then spooked by the burning palm trees, turned and fled back toward its stable. Scores of others charged through thick smoke to safety.

Trainer Cliff Sise suffered burns on his chest and arm trying to get a 2-year-old filly named Scat Home Lady out of her stable. She wouldn’t budge, and he said she burned to death there.

“She was one of my favorites,” Sise said as he sat outside the facility.

Trainer Jerry Contreras said one of his best friends, a fellow trainer, was hospitalized.

“He was trying to get his horses out and was burned,” Contreras said.

At San Luis Rey Downs, the phone rang unanswered and the owners quickly barred outsiders from the sprawling facility.

It is Southern California’s premier training center for thoroughbreds, with a competition-sized racetrack, a smaller one for training, numerous trails for horses to relax on and even a swimming pool for them to work out in.

The center can house as many as 500 horses and states proudly on a sign out front that it is the “Home of Azeri,” racing’s U.S. Horse of the Year in 2002.

Other thoroughbreds that have trained there include Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand.

The facility sits among rolling hills, picturesque vineyards and farms down a winding, two-lane road just a few miles off busy Interstate 15, the main thoroughfare connecting Southern California to Las Vegas.

The horses that fled were quickly rounded up, and many were taken to the nearby Del Mar racetrack, where a veterinary center was set up for the injured.

The tragedy resulted in an outpouring of support from the racing community, with Southern California’s Los Alamitos Race Course canceling its daytime thoroughbred program Friday out of respect.

The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and the Stronach Group, owners of San Luis Rey Downs, have set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for hospital and rehab costs.

Santa Anita racetrack officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia collected clothes and other items for stable workers who lost their possessions.

“I lost everything. Forty years. I lost all my tack, all my machines, my webbings. It was all burned. My whole livelihood. I feel like quitting,” the 66-year-old Sise said.