Desormeaux brothers a study in contrasts, shared focus as their Derby day with Exaggerator nears
Walking through the backstretch at Churchill Downs gives you an idea of where there is a sense of importance.
Barn 41 at the front is full of activity, with all of Doug O’Neill’s Team Nyquist contingent in sync, spreading their gospel, bedecked in either blue or white sponsored caps.
Pass a row of barns and go three back from the road and you’ll find Barn 33. There you can barely get a glimpse of that famous white hair, suffocated by cameras, as Bob Baffert talks to the media.
Then keep heading away from the action, past two rows of barns and head back up front and you’ll find Barn 25 at the far edge of the backstretch. It feels like the day after a parade with unnecessary white sawhorses and yellow “caution” tape to keep people -- not that there are many -- away.
Desormeaux’s concern could have just as easily been about himself. He prefers to train, not talk.
The guardedness would be more understood if Exaggerator were a long shot, but he’s the second favorite at 8-1, in other words, the horse with the best chance to beat Nyquist.
Desormeaux grows weary of people asking him about his much more famous brother Kent, a three-time Derby winner, and their relationship as both trainer-jockey and brothers.
“The great thing is I really can’t relate to what he does,” Keith said. “And he can’t relate to what I do. Kent’s all go and strategy within the course of a race. And my job is monotonous over time, preparing and creating this running machine that we have.
Keith admits to not talking to Kent as much as you might think.
“We’re so different personality wise,” Keith said. “He’s a ton of energy from the moment he wakes up to the time he goes to bed. I’m more even keel. … Different lifestyles. We don’t hang out much together.”
On this cold and rainy Churchill morning, Kent and his wife, jockey Rosie Higgins, drove up to the side of the barn. Kent went through the obligatory hugs of acknowledgment to some of the staff and owners that were at the barn. Keith stood off to the side, his back at times catty corner to his brother.
A few minutes later they took a long walk away from everyone, only to return 15 minutes later both going their separate ways. Apparently, their business was completed.
“I’ll probably cry in the post parade,” Kent said. “I’ll cry in the gate and I’ll cry at the eighth pole.… I want to win another Kentucky Derby and to win it for my brother, there are no words.”
Reality has softened the moment. Kent, 46, is adopting his three-year-older brother’s more measured approach.
“Now that we’re here, my brother has pretty much given me the emotional attitude of strength,” Kent said. “So, I don’t think I’ll be crying.
“I think I’ll be more focused and my direction will be blinkers on,” he said, referring to a piece of equipment that trainers use to keep a horse from being distracted. “I’ll be trying to figure nothing other than just how to win.”
And Kent plans to offer no advice, especially this being his brother’s first Derby, to Keith about how to handle the pressure of the week or anything else.
Ease comes to Keith’s voice when he gets to talk about Exaggerator, rather than himself.
After a big move before flattening out and finishing third in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, Keith was even doubting his horse’s ability to get the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Derby.
Those fears were gone with Exaggerator’s crushing 6 ¼-length win in the Santa Anita Derby over 1 1/8 miles. His move from more than 20 back to the front looked Herculean, something downplayed by both jockey and trainer.
Keith: “In my mind’s eye, I see a horse that’s still full of run, going at a steady pace as the horses in front were falling apart. Those horses were not running like they should have been, which made Exaggerator look so much better.”
Kent: “He didn’t exactly move. The other horses stopped. What he did was accomplish a rare feat and went 12 [seconds] and change every eighth of a mile. If we can accomplish that again in the Kentucky Derby, he’ll win by 10 again.”
After Nyquist beat Exaggerator by 1 1/2 lengths in the San Vicente, Desormeaux asked, “Can anyone not be a believer in Nyquist now?”
With Saturday’s race approaching, the trainer dug down to find that optimism so inherent in horse racing.
“I like that Exaggerator has the highest Beyer (speed figure, 103 to Nyquist’s 101) for a 3-year-old this year,” Desormeaux said. “One person asked me if Exaggerator has to improve to beat Nyquist. According to the numbers, Nyquist has to improve to beat us.”
He may not like talking, but sometimes he’s pretty good at it.
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