Desormeaux brothers’ Derby dream, far from rural roots, may be nearing fruition
Dreams often start in out-of-the-way places. Take, Maurice, La., for example, a place so small it’s not a city or town, but a village.
The 2010 census had it at 964 people, up from 642 a decade earlier. It’s also the home to the “world famous” City Bar Maurice and Meaux Sneaux Shack, where their best-ever snowcones are half-price on Monday and Thursday.
So, what are the chances that this little speck of a place, about 10 miles from Lafayette, could be the birthplace of a dream of having a trainer-jockey brother combination start a horse in the Kentucky Derby?
“I don’t think I ever did,” said Brenda Desormeaux, mom of trainer Keith and jockey Kent. “It was not in our plans.”
It may be now.
Kent Desormeaux, 45, is a hall of fame jockey, three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, two time Eclipse Award winner and in the Guinness Book of Records for winning 598 races in 1989.
Keith Desormeaux, 48, is considered one of the best trainers people haven’t quite discovered, even though he won a Breeders’ Cup race two years ago.
“I met him at a sale [a couple years ago] at Lone Star Park and, wow, I knew this guy knew horses,” said owner Matt Bryan, who has all his horses with Keith. “I knew we just needed to get him some money [for horses]. Everyone needs a break, and hopefully I was able to give him that shot.”
The shot is Exaggerator, a 3-year-old purchased last year for a bargain $110,000. The colt — who has earned almost $1 million in six races, three of them wins — makes his first start of the year on Monday in the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita.
He will be in heavy company, including Nyquist, the 2-year-old horse of the year, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and undefeated in five starts.
The race is only seven furlongs, three shorter than the Kentucky Derby, so Monday’s race truly is a prep. Keith has tentatively set a path of the San Felipe Stakes on March 12 and the Santa Anita Derby on April 9 as the two remaining races to help the horse qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Kent plans to be along for the ride.
“If I’m in that situation [on Exaggerator in the Derby] with my brother, I’ll probably cry in the post parade,” Kent said. “I’ll cry in the gate and I’ll cry at the eighth pole .… [The Derby)]is the crux of our lives. It’s why I’m still in the game. It’s why I still play. I want to win another Kentucky Derby and to win it for my brother, there are no words.”
Keith and Kent were the first of six children to Brenda and Harris Desormeaux. They were followed by Kristie, Kelli, Kalen and Kip.
“Keith was named for my little brother John Keith, who drowned,” Brenda Desormeaux, 73, said. “I just liked the name Kent and then we just decided to go with the K’s.”
Brenda said Keith and Kent had a typical sibling rivalry.
“Kent was always trying to keep up with Keith,” she said. “Kent looked up to his older brother. But Keith always thought his brother was too young to hang around with, but Kent wouldn’t give up.”
The two are very different personalities. Keith is measured and reserved, while Kent talks with an evangelical flair.
“We were very close growing up,” Kent said. “He is my idol. I wanted to play basketball like him. I wanted to play baseball like him. But I couldn’t keep up with him.”
Kent was the first to chart his course for racing. When he was 16, he started riding at unsanctioned races near his home. He was hooked.
“He was a tremendous student, top of his class,” Brenda said. “I thought he would be a doctor or lawyer, and one day he comes home and says he wants to be a jockey, and I said: ‘I don’t think so.’”
Mom lost that one and Kent dropped out of school. Meanwhile, Keith started out on a path of being a veterinarian, but after his first year at Louisiana Tech he knew he wanted to be a racehorse trainer. He switched his major to animal science.
“From there his goal was to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby,” Brenda said.
The brothers have had a strong but not always perfect relationship. Keith described the situation a few years ago as being strained.
“He was going through a divorce and he was drinking too much, in my opinion,” Keith said of his brother, emphasizing the last three words. “It had nothing to do with his talents.”
Kent says the assessment was “proper, but today we are clear.”
Keith echoes that things are fine.
“He’s a hall of fame rider, he’s immensely talented and he’s my brother. There’s no strain in our relationship and there won’t be as long as he listens to me,” Keith said with a big-brother laugh.
When it comes to riding, Kent is in charge.
“When my brother gives me a leg up, all he tells me is to have fun,” Kent said.
The pair had a Derby hopeful last year called Texas Red, winner of the Breeders’ Cup juvenile. He started his campaign with a second-place finish in the San Vicente but developed a foot abscess and was eventually taken off the trail.
Only two brother combinations have ever run at the Derby. Randy and Gerald Romero ran Dixieland Heat to a 12th-place finish in 1993. In 1964, Jimmy and Nick Combest got Mr. Moonlight a seventh.
Despite the developing scenario with Exaggerator, Keith says he will not define himself by whether his Derby dream comes true.
“The Derby is so difficult to win that I don’t accept the burden of winning as an everyday reality,” Keith said. “It’s something we all strive to accomplish as trainers, but if we made it our only goal, we would all go haywire.”
Keith, while tempering his expectations, admits that Exaggerator has “all the necessary tools to make it to the Derby.”
Kent agrees: “His maximum cruising speed is faster than most horses can race.”
The brothers have been defined by their close-knit family. Kent even made an unsolicited call to a reporter hours after being interviewed to make sure that anything written about the brothers gave credit to their parents.
“When we have success it reverberates all the way to home, spelled with a capital H-O-M-E,” he said.
Brenda and Harris Desormeaux plan to be at the Derby to support their sons. Brenda says she was in Louisville for all three of Kent’s wins “and 15 or 20 ones in between.” And she would never miss Keith’s first trip to the Derby as a trainer.
“It would be out of this world,” Brenda said. “It’s almost a miracle to have two sons in the Kentucky Derby, one a trainer and one a jockey, and to think they both came from the little bitty town of Maurice.”
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