Desormeaux brothers atop racing world, eyeing Belmont after Exaggerator win in Preakness

For trainer Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator's victory in the 141st Preakness was not about a deepening rivalry with Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist or about upending the latest quest for a Triple Crown.It was more personal than that, both because he ...

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Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Exaggerator, speaks with the media on Wednesday after a workout session in preparation for the Preakness. (Geoff Burke / USA Today Sports)

For trainer Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s victory in the 141st Preakness was not about a deepening rivalry with Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist or about upending the latest quest for a Triple Crown.
It was more personal than that, both because he achieved his career highlight in tandem with his younger brother, jockey Kent Desormeaux, and because he’d bided his time for so many years, learning to prepare a horse as gifted as Exaggerator.
“I’m just an old county boy working in the trenches these last 30 years, and now we’re competing on the highest level,” he said Sunday morning outside Exaggerator’s stall at Pimlico Race Course. “My emotions are more toward gratitude and satisfaction at getting to this level. The rivalry or the fun, it’s there but it doesn’t matter who’s in the race. It’s the fact we’re competing at this level.”
Fans certainly embraced the race, setting an attendance record at Pimlico and producing a 6.2 overnight rating for NBC, up 7 percent from American Pharoah’s Preakness win in 2015.
The Desormeauxs and owner Matt Bryan celebrated with a late dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House by the Inner Harbor.
“With all the emotion leading up to that race and beginning a meal at 10 p.m., I don’t care how excited you are, you’re starting to wind down,” Keith said. “We had a nice meal, a couple glasses of wine, some nice chatter and then it was over.”
The brothers called their mother, Brenda, who was the ecstatic star of a Saturday office party at the nonprofit she runs in Lafayette, La.
Exaggerator was fit and hungry after his victory. He’ll remain at Pimlico for as much as a week before shipping to New York for the Belmont Stakes.
It seems he’ll renew his rivalry with Nyquist there and face Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine. Derby runners Suddenbreakingnews, Brody’s Cause and Destin are also expected to start against him.
Nyquist’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, was at Pimlico at about 6:30 a.m. Sunday and said his horse will ship to Belmont Park on Monday. He again blamed himself rather than jockey Mario Gutierrez for the aggressive start that seemed to wear Nyquist out in the Preakness.
He said after the race that Exaggerator was always the biggest threat to his previously undefeated horse, and he credited the Desormeauxs for producing a “monstrous” performance from their gifted challenger.
For Kent Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s upset of Nyquist was a climb back to the mountain top where he spent much of his Hall of Fame career. He had not won a Triple Crown race since 2009. For Keith, it represented the culmination of a long, slow ascent.
As different as they are, they’ve built a trainer-jockey relationship based on absolute trust in their respective talents. Keith was reminded of that again Saturday, when he watched Kent snatch the race with a counterintuitive move to the rail.
“So the moral of the story is, trust your brother?” a reporter asked.
“Yeah,” Keith said.
Both brothers apprenticed in Maryland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but as Keith pointed out, they did not make their way in the industry together.
Kent was a shooting star who came into Saturday’s Preakness with six wins in Triple Crown races. Keith had not saddled a horse in the Derby or Preakness before this spring. Only in the last few years, since he forged a relationship with Bryan, the Texas businessman, has he worked with horses talented enough to win such races.
“I personally never had doubt that I’d get here,” he said. “To me, my own perseverance was going to get there. It wasn’t a matter of if but when. … If I woke up every day wondering if I’d ever win a Derby, Preakness or Belmont, I wouldn’t enjoy my work. I woke up thankful every day that I get to do something like this for a living.”
Desormeaux has always kept his focus on Exaggerator more than Nyquist, but with a sixth meeting seemingly on tap for the June 11 Belmont, he acknowledged the rivalry will be a selling point.
“We have to play that up as horse racing aficionados,” he said. “You lose a lot of the luster after a Derby winner is beat, because the Triple Crown chance is annihilated. We have to play up the rivalry, I guess. Keep people interested. There’s no way it’s going to compare to American Pharoah last year, but it’s sure going to be fun for those of us immediately involved.”
Desormeaux said it won’t be easy to pick a Belmont favorite. Nyquist is still 4-1 against his horse after all. But he said Exaggerator’s pedigree, with Curlin as his sire, could give him an advantage in the 1-1/2-mile race.
“I think my horse is a little more skewed to distance as far as pedigree is concerned,” he said. “He should relish it.”
After Belmont, Exaggerator will likely point to the Aug. 27 Travers Stakes at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the fall.

Kent Desormeaux rides Exaggerator back up the track after winning the 141st Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on Saturday. (Geoff Burke / USA Today Sports)

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