As the horses went to post in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 23, trainer Keith Desormeaux wasn't particularly surprised to find his entry, Ive Struck a Nerve at astronomical odds of 135-1.
“It was quite understandable,” said Desormeaux. “We had a lot to prove. Conformation-wise and pedigree-wise the horse had the ability to get that distance (1 1/16 miles), but how could you argue with his past performances? That, and the fact that none of his Beyer speed figures ever said he was that fast.”
The colt shocked bettors when he swung six-wide and charged the field in the stretch to edge out Code West, Palace Malice, and Oxbow. In the span of one minute and 44 seconds, Desormeaux had gained his first career graded stakes winner, and he had the leader on the Kentucky Derby points board.
In the Risen Star, Ive Struck a Nerve added 50 points to the point he earned with a fourth-place finish in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes Jan. 19.
Desormeaux cautioned that the colt still has a lot to prove. His next start will be the Louisiana Derby, where he could earn up to 100 points on the road to the first Saturday in May.
“We're not done yet. I'm trying not to get caught up yet. This horse has to duplicate the effort,” he said. “I don't care if he has the points. It doesn't matter. If he doesn't reproduce the effort, I doubt we'll go to the Derby just because we can get in. I'm not that kind of person. We're going to make sure we're legit before we make the trip.”
Bred in Kentucky by Brereton Jones, Ive Struck a Nerve is the son of Yankee Gentleman and Cryptoclearance mare Ranaway. He was a bargain basement $1,700 weanling purchase by Summerfield at Keeneland's November sale. Ive Struck a Nerve was pinhooked as a $17,000 yearling in the OBS August sale to Mayberry Farm before selling to owner Matt Bryan for $82,000 at OBS June in 2012.
Desormeaux, who provides bloodstock consulting for Bryan, said he was drawn to Ive Struck a Nerve due to his pedigree, which melds distance on his dam's side with speed on the topline.
“Physically, there are no weaknesses. He's very sound,” said Desormeaux. “Maybe Yankee Gentleman limits him, I don't know. But I stick to my guns of why I bought him—he's by a sire that can get you speed, and out of a dam that can you all the distance you want, so it's a perfect combination.”
Desormeaux, who does not buy at the high end of the market, said the horse checked all the boxes for him.
“I'd like to say I saw him and was just immediately in love, but when you're buying horses like I do, and you don't have all the money in the world to spend, you have to buy not only horses that you like physically, but they have to match pedigree-wise as well. I can't go out and buy a beautiful Medaglia d'Oro because they're far too expensive.”
Around the barn, Desormeaux and Bryan say the colt is “sweet” but not interested in cuddling with anyone — unless they have treats.
“He likes to play. He's got a big heart and likes to play, but he also likes to bite. And if you act like you're scared of him, he'll really get after you,” chuckled Bryan.
On a normal Derby Day, Desormeaux and Bryan are either watching the race at home on television, or in person at Churchill, depending on where the racing circuit takes them.
Desormeaux is the older brother of Hall of Fame jockey and three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux. Keith and Kent grew up in Louisiana attending bush track races with their family, but it wasn't until Keith attended Louisiana Tech University that he thought of horses as a career.
“We grew up in a rural farming community … horses were kind of a part of the fabric of the community,” said Desormeaux. “We didn't understand as kids that people actually did this for a living. It was a decision after high school to turn a love into a career.”
He became an assistant to trainer Charlie Hardy in the late 1980s before striking out on his own in 1991. These days, Desormeaux keeps a modest barn of 20 horses in training at Fair Grounds.
The prospect of suddenly having a horse on the road to the Derby is also unexpected for owner Matt Bryan, who races as Big Chief Racing, LLC. Bryan fell in love with racing watching Seattle Slew's Derby win in 1977. He bought his first share of a racehorse in 2010 with syndicate Don't Tell My Wife Stables but has raced horses under his own name for just 10 months.
“I'm not going to tell you I've been around a lot of racehorses, but I knew [Keith] knew what he was talking about. I had a good feeling about his integrity and what he does, and I liked his old-school tactics,” Bryan said. “I talk to Keith probably once to twice a day.”
“Your goal is always to have a Derby horse,” he said. “That's what you want to do … that's the pinnacle. You just want to do good. It's a 20-horse field, and you just want to do as well as you possibly can do.”
So what do you do when you land a massive Grade 2 upset and a potential ticket to the Kentucky Derby?
“A lot of people suggested a party. The word 'party' doesn't sound as enticing as it used to once you get to be 36 years old. You don't need a party. We just went out to dinner and talked about the future and had some laughs. And you go to sleep with a giddy smile on your face. That's a pretty good way to end the day.”
For Desormeaux, a trip to Louisville with Ive Struck a Nerve would be more than just a chance to take his longshot to the big leagues.
“It would be, for lack of a better word, incredible. You read about the big guys, and it seems like it must not be that difficult to get there because Pletcher and Lukas and Baffert and Zito seem to be there ever year, so how hard could it be, right?” he said. “I represent the blue-collar section of our business. We have a love for the business and dreams just like anybody else. Although my brother has won three Derbies and been unbelievably successful, I still belong to a different group. To be even part of mentioning a Derby prospect is a lot of fun.”
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