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Bargain hunts have really paid off for horse trainer Keith Desormeaux

If you’re looking for a bargain, you could do worse than bringing Keith Desormeaux along with you. Especially if you are looking for a horse.

The personable Santa Anita-based trainer is back in the Kentucky Derby hunt with a colt bought for a mere $20,000. Even though My Boy Jack had run in the Breeders’ Cup, he’d been mostly under the radar until he won the $500,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Monday.

This isn’t the first time Desormeaux bought a horse for little money and found great success. A couple years ago, he purchased Texas Red for $17,000 and the horse won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and more than $1.7 million. And, in a sport where a $1-million purchase price is de rigueur, he paid $110,000 for Exaggerator, who won about $3.5 million and the Preakness Stakes.

“Over the years, I’ve developed a way to glean out these less expensive horses that have a lot of talent,” Desormeaux said. “It’s not that I buy whatever is cheap. The horses I buy have to fit the same criteria that I would use for a million-dollar horse. They have to have class, they have to look good and have the intangibles.”

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Desormeaux has discarded the traditional notion of separating dirt and turf horses. Five of My Boy Jack’s eight races have been on the turf.

“He was always built for distance,” Desormeaux said. “The surface is secondary. The problem in Southern California is there are no distance races for 2-year-olds until August, so I ran him on the turf to give him that distance.”

My Boy Jack even ran on the grass in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, in which he finished seventh.

“I always planned on running him on the dirt,” he said. “The Derby” — run on dirt — “is always the big prize.”

Desormeaux is not enamored about how he will have to get to the Derby.

“That’s where it gets complicated,” he said. “The horse is well accomplished and a 2-year-old stakes winner; he was in the Breeders’ Cup and has $435,000 in earnings. He should be eligible now. If I were thinking the best scenario, I would give him only one more start. But we are all at the mercy of the points system and we only have 12.”

Before this system was instituted, horses qualified on graded stakes earnings. My Boy Jack picked up $300,000 in the Southwest, so he would have been set.

My Boy Jack’s next race will be either Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes, with 85 total points, on March 17, or the Louisiana Derby, with 170 points, on March 24. Generally, 30 points will assure you of getting a Derby spot, so a top three finish could be enough.

“Maybe he stumbles, maybe he doesn’t like the track. Now, we’re behind the eight ball,” Desormeaux said. “I may have to run two races, but I really only want to run one. Hopefully, he’ll earn his points. The pundits will say seven weeks [until the Derby] is too long, but I’m not concerned with him needing another race.”

My Boy Jack’s third-place finish in the Sham Stakes behind McKinzie — who along with Good Magic and Bolt D’Oro form the trifecta of Derby favorites — has observers excited.

“Talent-wise, he seems to be close to the likes of McKinzie,” Desormeaux said. “But that Sham race was really encouraging because I didn’t think my horse had that speed yet. But [jockey and brother] Kent [Desormeaux] had to reel him in. For him to show that natural speed was great.”

Handle up at Santa Anita

Heading into Friday’s card, the daily handle at Santa Anita is up about $1.1 million a day. Compared to last year, when there were two fewer cards (33-31) and 17 fewer races because of weather, the track’s average handle is $8,650,682, compared to $7,508,365, according to CHRIMS, which essentially acts as the independent accountant for the tracks.

Last year at this date, the track had pulled in $232,759,316 in all-sources handle, compared to $285,472,521 this year. That’s a 22.6% increase. But the 15.2% increase in average handle is probably more indicative of success.

Tim Ritvo, the top person at Santa Anita and all Stronach tracks, offered a combination of explanations.

“Field size helps a lot,” Ritvo said, pointing to this year being 8.30 horses a race to 7.54 last year. “That’s a big number, from seven to eight.”

And: “Obviously the bad weather in the northeast has helped our number and the fact we’re offering more grass racing,” he said. “With that we’re hoping to parlay that into more success.”

The biggest day outside of opening day was Feb. 3, when the four-stakes-race card brought in $12,319,795. Opening day, which was beset by long lines and people getting shut out, brought in $15,888,223 through all sources.

Weekend racing

There are two stakes on Saturday, both 6 1/2 furlongs on the turf down the hill. Stormy Liberal, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint for trainer Peter Miller, heads the $150,000 Daytona Stakes for open company. The other race down the hill is the $75,000 Wishing Well Stakes for older fillies and mares. … On Sunday, the feature is the $100,000 Spring Fever Stakes for older fillies and mares over six furlongs. … Starting March 11, Santa Anita is changing its Sunday post time to an 11:30 a.m. brunch experience. All other days will be noon, except for Triple Crown Saturdays.

johnacherwa@gmail.com


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