From dustups to Derby: Brothers Desormeaux take a shot
LOUISVILLE, KY. >> Keith Desormeaux has a history with the jockey riding his horse Exaggerator in the Kentucky Derby. The trainer used to fight with him growing up in the Cajun country of south Louisiana.
Keith and Kent Desormeaux are teaming up in the Derby for the first time on Saturday. For Keith, it would be the biggest win of his career. For younger brother Kent, it would be his fourth victory in America's greatest race.
The brothers were supposed to be doing this two years ago with Texas Red. The colt had won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and stamped himself as the winter favorite for the 2014 Derby. But he got hurt and was off the Triple Crown trail.
In 2013, Keith had a Derby contender with Ive Struck a Nerve, but an injury derailed him, too.
"To finally get here with this one, I feel a lot of gratification and appreciation," Keith said Tuesday at Churchill Downs.
Kent dropped his whip the first time he ever rode for his brother when they were teenagers at a bush track near their home in Maurice, Louisiana.
"We got along as good as you can expect two brothers who are three years apart," said Keith, at 46 the oldest of six siblings. "Three years is an eternity in kid years. I was like, 'Man, do you have to follow me everywhere?' We were typical brothers, fought all the time, had a lot of fun."
Their father, Harris, opened his own bush track for thoroughbreds, an anomaly in south Louisiana, where the old bush tracks were for quarter horses. Keith, whose first name is John but goes by his middle name, and Kent caught the racing bug there and it never left.
For years, Kent made the family name famous in racing circles. He has ridden over 5,000 winners, is in the sport's Hall of Fame, won three other Triple Crown races besides the Derby, and 10 Breeders' Cup races.
Keith's credentials are more modest. He started training in 1988 and three years later opened his own stable. In August 2014, he won his 500th race, with Kent aboard. On Saturday, Kent will be riding in his 20th Derby on Exaggerator, who is owned by Keith and three partners.
"It's extra special to be with Keith," Kent said, "and we don't even talk too much, it's all quite understood."
The brothers who used to throw punches don't pull any punches with each other as adults.
"I'm not sure I'd talk to a Mike Smith the way I talk to Kent," Keith said of another Hall of Fame jockey. "We're just very upfront about everything and express ourselves fully."
There's a comfortable shorthand between them. Typically, a trainer gives a jockey riding instructions before a race.
"I might tell him a couple little quirks of the horse, like Exaggerator is more nervous today, you might want to try to calm him down in the warmup," Keith said. "But how to ride, where to position the horse through the race, no, I don't say a thing."
Harris and Brenda Desormeaux arrived in Louisville on Tuesday from Maurice, where they still live in a house decorated with Kent's riding trophies. A devoted mother steeped in her Catholic faith, Brenda "really didn't care" about racing, Keith recalled.
"The only affinity she would probably have for horse racing is that it kept her two boys out of her kitchen," he said in a pronounced Cajun drawl.
Although the brothers both spent the winter at Santa Anita in Southern California, Keith said they don't hang out much. He is a single father to a grown son. Kent has two boys from his first marriage. Three years ago, he married Rosie Higgins, a jockey 15 years younger who won her first career race at Santa Anita in January.
"Just as different as our job positions are on the track," Keith said of him and his brother.
Exaggerator rallied to win the Santa Anita Derby on a sloppy track by 6 1/4 lengths last month. Keith expects him to come from behind in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, where a full 20-horse field is expected.
"Kent will be back there counting cars," Keith said.
Exaggerator has already lost three times to Nyquist, the likely Derby favorite. But he's no slouch. Exaggerator is one of three horses, along with Nyquist, with earnings over $1 million going into the race.
Keith doesn't let himself think about winning the Derby with his brother, which would be a first.
"I just want to get my horse into the race in the best shape as possible," he said.
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