UCLA’s John Wooden didn’t win an NCAA Tournament until he was 53. Casey Stengel never managed the Yankees to a world championship until age 59. It wasn’t as if The Wizard of Westwood and The Old Perfessor suddenly became geniuses after years of struggling. Before then, they just didn’t have the horses.
Not long ago, neither did Keith Desormeaux. While paying his dues at racetracks in Maryland, Louisiana, Arkansas, California and Texas, he dreamed of training thoroughbreds who could compete in the Triple Crown. There were times he wondered if it ever would happen. Then a chance meeting in the autumn of 2012 led to a career breakthrough for Desormeaux, whose Preakness winner, Exaggerator, will be heavily favored in Saturday’s 148th Belmont Stakes.
“Looking back on it, those 20 years were great preparation for when I got the right opportunity, meaning with an owner with the resources and the enthusiasm,’’ Desormeaux, 49, said. “I never had that before.
“When the time came, I was ready.”
The joke is that everything in Texas is big except Lone Star Park, a backwater track near Dallas whose one shining moment was hosting the 2004 Breeders’ Cup. It’s where Desormeaux connected with tall Texan Matt Bryan at a sale of 2-year-olds in training. Bryan is the big chief in Big Chief Racing, which co-owns Exaggerator and 20 other horses Desormeaux trains.
“Keith was there trying to pick one out and I could see how hard he was working,” said Bryan, who was scouting for a trainer. “I got a really good vibe off him, and we hit it off right away. We were together for about 30 minutes, and in that time I just knew he was the guy I was looking for.’’
It’s said that intuition is the highest form of cognition, and trusting his gut paid off immediately for Bryan. He laid out $82,000 for the 2-year-old Ive Struck a Nerve, the first horse Desormeaux picked out for him, and the next year he won a Kentucky Derby prep, the Risen Star Stakes, at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Ive Struck a Nerve paid an insane $272.40 after beating the eventual winners of the 2013 Preakness (Oxbow) and Belmont (Palace Music).
“You could have peeled me off the winner’s circle that day,” Bryan said.
That shocker began a remarkable run with bargain buys who produced megabucks. In 2014 Desormeaux found Swipe for Bryan for $5,000, pocket change. A colt who didn’t pass the eye test for other buyers has earned more than $600,000.
“I grew up around horses, not thoroughbreds, but work horses and quarter horses, and I know a bit about them,’’ Bryan said. “And I could tell Keith knew a lot about them and had an eye for them. I saw the way he looked at them, how focused he was. I knew he was good.”
A passion for horses is hard-wired into the Cajun DNA, and seeing potential in an unraced thoroughbred is a precious gift. Junius Delahoussaye, Pola Benoit and Pierre LeBlanc, among the most revered Louisiana horsemen of all time, had it. Louisiana trainer Glenn Delahoussaye calls it “the third eye.”
“We‘d see a bunch of babies and broodmares out in a field,” Glenn Delahoussaye said. “My daddy would just sit there and watch them all. He’d always pick two, and you could believe those two were the runners.”
According to paulickreport.com, Desormeaux’s buys in 2013, 2014 and 2015 averaged $37,853, $45,182 and $45,200, respectively. “I’ve survived by learning how to identify nice horses at cheap prices,” he said. Buy low, play high.
He looks for athleticism and class, and he’s willing to overlook minor physical flaws that put off other bidders. Desormeaux found Exaggerator, whom he owns with Bryan, Sol Kumin and Ronnie Ortowski, at a Keeneland yearling sale for $110,000.
“I spotted him in the back ring and was immediately attracted to him. He had balance and a catlike walk,’’ Desormeaux said. “Pedigree means nothing to me until I see the individual. He’s by a sire I always loved, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one of his offspring.’’
The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin has won three seven-figure stakes and earned $2.97 million, and a stud deal with WinStar Farm should be worth exponentially more. Talk about maxing out.
Desormeaux was an assistant to Maryland-based Charles Hadry before going out on his own at 23 in 1990. “That was way too soon,’’ he said. “I had a lot more learning to do. I should have gotten more experience, but there are no regrets. I worked in the trenches for 20 years, and that taught me to be the horseman I am now.”
He said he never lost confidence, but when he was down to eight horses in 2008, he admitted he had doubts. He kept grinding away. Even though he was 0-for-8 with Swipe and Exaggerator against Nyquist, Desormeaux kept chasing the undefeated monster, and he finally took him down at Pimlico.
He’s a link in a long chain of Cajuns who came up on long-gone bush tracks named Carencro Downs, Cajun Downs and Ville Platte. Those dusty outposts in the Louisiana boondocks inspired big dreams. Besides Exaggerator’s Hall of Fame jockey, Keith’s younger brother Kent, Cajuns Eric Guerin, Eddie Delahoussaye, Calvin Borel and Robby Albarado have ridden a classic winner. Only Keith has trained one.
As a kid, participating in the Triple Crown was “a fantasy.” Over the years, he realized it would be difficult but far from impossible.
“I saw time and again that the horses that make it to that level aren’t always the bluebloods with the deep-pocketed owners,’’ he said. “It’s not something I woke up every day dreaming about. I always thought it could be reality. I just had to figure out a way to do it myself. This is a culmination of a lifetime of applying myself to horsemanship and finding value.
“To finally win one, it’s not dreamlike. It’s more gratification.”