BALTIMORE — Keith Desormeaux grew up surrounded by horses in tiny Maurice, Louisiana. As boys, he and younger brother Kent would show ponies owned by their father, Harris, at 4H Club shows all over Cajun country.
When Keith, 49, and Kent, 46, were in their teens, Harris owned Acadiana Downs, “the Cadillac of the bush tracks.” In 1985, when Keith was 18 and Kent was 15, they teamed up there in a race for the first time. It did not go well. Keith had to borrow from friends to scrounge up $25 for the entry fee. They wouldn’t take a check, even though his father owned the place. Kent dropped his whip and the Meaux Breaux lost the match race.
“It was a mess,’’ Keith said.
Keith said he didn’t begin to think about a career in racing until he was in college. In 1988, when Keith was at Louisiana Tech studying animal science, Kent’s star was rising in Maryland. The 18-year-old phenom won the Eclipse Award for top apprentice, and in 1989 the future Hall of Famer rode 598 winners, a record that still stands.
Kent encouraged Keith to come to Maryland, where he galloped horses and made connections. After graduation he became an assistant to trainer Charles Hadry.
“That’s where it all started,’’ Keith said. “That’s where I cut my teeth. That would have been my first summer job in college, and Kent was already on a roll there in Maryland. Why would I go anywhere else? I had a free room to bunk in, and he knew people.”
Thanks to Exaggerator and Texas Red, now people all over the country know Keith Desormeaux.
The Desormeaux brothers were basketball stars in high school, but Keith’s seniority and height advantage gave him a major edge. “I had three years on him,” Keith said, “and for teenagers that’s an eternity. So the competition wasn’t much.”
Doug O’Neill, Nyquist’s trainer, is about 6-4, and he recalls playing pickup basketball against the Desormeaux boys 10 years ago at Del Mar.
“They’re really good players,’’ O’Neill said. “You won’t find two guys who are more competitive. They were way too quick for me. I wasn’t going to go out and try to chase them, so I would just plop myself under the boards like Bill Laimbeer and use my height.’’
Three consecutive Kentucky Derby winners, and four of the last five, were based in Southern California.
“The weather in California lends itself to year-round training,” said Steve Rothblum, a bloodstock agent for J. Paul Reddam, owner of Nyquist and 2012 Derby-Preakness winner I’ll Have Another. “There’s not much racing them fit out here. We train fit. If you’re going to run in a maiden special weight at Santa Anita, you’ve got to be dead fit.”
Reddam, a hockey nut and a lifelong fan of the Detroit Red Wings, owns horses in partnership with Erik Johnson, who plays for the Colorado Avalanche. Reddam said that last year he told Johnson he should sign with the Wings when he becomes a free agent. “I’ll never sign with them,’’ Johnson said. “Are you kidding?”
“Just to get at him, I named a couple of horses after Red Wings, and Nyquist is one of them,’’ he said, referring to right wing Gustav Nyquist. “Then Erik was like ‘Can I buy a piece of Nyquist?’ ‘’
The answer was no. Considering Nyquist has earned more than $5 million, Johnson undoubtedly has wiseguy’s remorse.
Hey, he’s from Sweden
Gustav Nyquist is not exactly a racing expert. A few months ago, he asked Reddam how his four-legged namesake was doing. The question: “So how did he do in that tournament?”