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.”

 

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

eclipse awards
Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.